In a phrase–it’s ABSOLUTELY CRITICAL.
To some, this statement might appear to be a big “DUH, of course it’s important”. While this appears obvious to anyone with software industry experience, in practice a really intuitive user interface is actually quite difficult to achieve in practice. It really doesn’t matter if you’re in B2B or B2C–building a traditionally licensed product, SaaS, mobile or Open Source–ease-of-use is often the difference between success and failure. Unfortunately in my years in the software business I’ve seen considerably more applications that I’d consider to be hard to use than I have easy-to-use products.
Why ease of use is so important and what superior ease of use does for you
- You only get one chance to make a great first impression–and your user interface in many cases is that first impression.
- New prospects and users won’t even get to try out all of your neat and useful features if they view using your application as too difficult and give up.
- Outstanding ease of use can dramatically reduce your support costs–either by just reducing the amount of support personnel required or even allowing you to go to a “self-service” support model, via support databases and communities in the case of low priced products. This frees up cash flow for additional marketing and product development
- An application that is viewed as easy-to-use is by far the most likely to be referred on to friends and colleagues, creating the potential for a lot of viral-driven sales.
- A well designed user interface with advanced features hidden by techniques such as a customizable UI setup or a progressive disclosure approach can bring the best of both worlds–easy enough for beginners and casual users and sophisticated enough for power users.
- Supreme ease-of-use allows you to more effectively use “low touch” marketing methods such as Freemium Business Models and trial downloads converting directly to sales with little or no sales personnel required.
- Above all, ease of is critical to creating happy, long-term customers
How to ensure you fully optimize the ease of use of your applications
- Resist the temptation to add every feature that a user has ever asked for–or might ever. Complexity and feature creep can sneak in quietly and insidiously and are the enemy of a user-friendly application.
- If your application is SaaS-based, resist the temptation to constantly “improve” the interface–just because you can. Often this improvement occurs without the user’s knowledge or consent and can be disconcerting to them. I use some applications that if I don’t use for a few months, when I login I can barely recognize them (Google Adwords is a notable example). This can be frustrating for even your most experienced users.
- If you must add features for advanced users, use a progressive disclosure, customizable UI setup or some other advanced technique to hide these important-but little used features from average users.
- Keep interfaces as simple and clean as possible–make certain it’s necessary before you add that last button or drop-down list box.
- Conversely, interfaces can’t be “blank sheets of paper”. Ensure that the most important features are accessible from where ever in the application the user might want use them–sometimes TOO MUCH simplicity can itself make an application harder to use.
- Nearly every application is complicated to a brand new user. Consider adopting a “new user wizard” approach to walk new users through there first few times through the application.
- Even though the complaint is that “no one will use them anyway”, provide as much easily accessible help within the application as possible. Link the searchable user manual, context sensitive help, tool tips, video tutorials for common or difficult tasks, FAQs, community support boards and direct technical support. All of these improve your ease-of-use incrementally. Add anything and everything you can afford to provide that makes the user more self-sufficient–it will save you money and increase your revenue in the long run.
I’m sure that I’m preaching to the choir among veteran software developers, product managers and CEOs on this topic. But in my experience, it’s all too easy for ease-of-use excellence to slip under the pressure of getting the application out, responding to feedback from major users and just the general fatigue and blindness that comes from looking at a software application too many times. It’s understandable that any of these things can trip you up during a long and difficult development cycle. But in my opinion it’s critical almost above all other things to not let these and other legitimate reasons keep you from ease-of-use optimization. It’s your product’s most important feature.
What’s your opinion on the role of ease-of-use in the software business? Leave a comment below with your own views or best practices.