Lean usability focuses on customer needs and quickly iterates its way to success based on evidence of customer behavior.
I’m just back from a very interesting conference in Denver, USA, about lean usability. Inspired by the whole lean and agile software development movement, lean usability is about fast, economical, iterative, evidence-based techniques to make a website or application better.
The Lean usability movement is the response to the failings of more traditional approaches of carefully planned, long-term projects. In a world that is rapidly changing and highly complex, these slow moving projects are finding it increasingly difficult to achieve optimal results.
A classic example of a traditional project is the website redesign. Sometimes redesigns are necessary for example when the current website is simply not fit for purpose. The navigation and structure are so poor that a root-and-branch redesign is required.
Often, however, the redesign reflects a rigid project-focused view of the Web. We need to develop an app, or we need to redesign the website, the thinking goes. Once the development or redesign is finished then the job is complete.
Continuous improvement is not something most organizations are good at, but it is an approach that is absolutely essential for success on the Web. One speaker at the lean usability conference told me about how his government can find millions every 3-4 years to redesign its main government website, but that in the intervening years it allocates practically zero resources for its maintenance and continuing improvement.
I have been involved in designing websites since 1994 and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it is that the Web is a work in progress, particularly for large complex websites. The job does not end the day you launch.
The vast majority of websites I have worked with would be 100 times better off to spend 50,000 dollars every year on improving their websites, rather than spending 200,000 every three years on redesigns.
Redesigns dominate because they visibly show to management that something has changed. Redesigns also dominate because budgets for projects are nearly always easier to find than budgets for people.
The Lean approach is about getting something basic up and running quickly. This basic thing is then relentlessly tested with customers. It may not survive and something else may need to replace it. If it does survive it keeps going through a process of rapid evolution, constant improvement, continuous care and attention.
The Lean approach is as much about taking away as it is about adding. It’s about simplicity, about having the minimum amount of stuff there. It is also highly collaborative, as Jeff Gothelf and Tomer Sharon stressed in their talks. It’s not just about engaging actively with customers but engaging actively with as many stakeholders as possible within the organization as well.
The tools of the Lean approach are not expensive. You can observe customers using Webex or GoToMeeting. There are excellent design tools like Optimal Workshop, and a whole range of analytical tools like UserZoom, webnographer, etc.
This is a tremendously exciting time for web professionals. The Web is like a giant human brain and we now have the tools and techniques to do continuous PET scans of that brain. We should use them so as to better serve our customers.
On the Web we need to measure whether customers are actually successful, not whether they are satisfied.
Professor Jim Saker of Loughborough University writes about a presentation he was at where “the announcement was made that the franchise customer satisfaction index had gone up by a whole five percentage points in the past year. There was wild applause and self-congratulation until it was pointed out on the next slide that sales and profitability had gone down by an even larger percentage.”
I remember once testing a website with a woman who had a really hard time completing basic tasks. At the end of the test, I asked her how satisfied she was with the website. “Really satisfied,” she replied.
This sort of response is not unusual. The question is: what will most affect a customers’ likelihood of returning to a website? The fact that they were able to do what they needed to do quickly? Or the fact that even though they failed miserably at their tasks, they told the nice researcher that it was a nice site?
In an article entitled ‘Stop Delighting the Customer’, Matthew Dixon, Lara Ponomareff, and Anastasia Milgramm explain how a division of American Express found that “customer retention rates remained flat even as satisfaction rates rose.”
Often, satisfaction is not a good measure of whether a customer will do more business with you. However, it was found that American Express customers who experienced “low-effort or effortless experiences were more likely to complete future transactions than customers who had high-effort experiences.”
Reliant, an American energy company, became committed to reducing customer effort. As part of this new strategy, “Reliant removed the talk-time metric,” according to Dixon et al. This metric measures how long a customer support rep stays on a call. The result of such a metric is that “reps paid more attention to the clock than to customers’ concerns, rushing customers off the phone when they had hit their limit and leaving the customer without full resolution.” By instead focusing on reducing customer effort, Reliant has significantly improved key metrics such as first contact resolution rates.
The equivalent of ‘watching the clock’ in the web content world is a culture of producing large volumes of low quality content. A great many content authors get paid based on the quantity of content they publish rather than on how many customer problems it helps solve.
Recent studies have shown that satisfaction with Facebook compares very badly with other social sites such as Google+. Does this mean Facebook is much worse than Google+? Or does it mean that when you have almost a billion members it’s hard to keep them all feeling satisfied? McDonalds has the same customer satisfaction problem. And we all know, of course, that nobody is satisfied with Ryanair. But if there is such dissatisfaction with Facebook, McDonalds and Ryanair, why are so many people still using them?
In many situations, satisfaction is not a good measure of future customer behavior.
Search engine optimization (SEO) tactics often make it harder for customers to do what they need to do.
If Google wanted to get found in Google would it have the homepage it has? No. It would have a homepage with lots of content on it. This content would repeat keywords such as “search engine.” For example, a classic SEO statement would be. “Search with our search engine. We are the best search engine to help you search.”
The above is clever SEO but dumb content. But variants of this dumb content are being produced by a great many sites in order to “get found”. Let’s get back to Google. Today I searched for “search engine” on Google.
The first result was for Wikipedia, then came Dogpile, searchengine.ie, DuckDuckGo, Bing, etc. The Google search engine didn’t appear until the third page of results, which means it might as well be sitting on top of Mount Everest from a search findability perspective.
The Google homepage is absolutely atrociously optimized for search engines, but tremendously well optimized for people who search. The Google design is focused on what the customer wants to do, which is to search and find stuff. Google is not focused on getting itself found but on helping customers find.
Strangely, many websites don’t have that focus. What needs do you satisfy? How well do you satisfy them? These are vital questions to answer.
Yes, it’s important to get found. But what happens after you get found is crucial. From a customer’s point of view, finding a particular website is just the first step in completing a task.
Google wasn’t always popular. Once upon a time it was a totally unknown website run by two students. Its strategy to get found was based on being useful. That’s by far the best philosophy. Let’s focus much more on helping people be successful once they get to our website.
That may mean doing the exact opposite of what many SEO tacticians tell us to do. I have seen many examples of when 80% of the content got deleted from a site; sales jumped, support calls dropped and general customer satisfaction rose significantly.
There’s no point in bringing lots of people to your website if they are going to feel frustrated and annoyed when they get there. You must focus on helping them do what they need to do as quickly as possible. That very often means reducing pages and then stripping as much content as possible out of the pages that remain in order to simplify them.
Of course, it’s not always about removal. I have worked with websites where they didn’t have enough content in particular areas. The larger point here is that we should not focus on the content itself. If Google did that it would have a content rich homepage that would be terrible to use. And if that were the case, we wouldn’t be talking about Google because nobody would be using it.
Simplicity for the customer causes complexity for the organization.
When Manish Chandra was launching Poshmark, a shopping party app, one of the design decisions he faced related to the payment system. It was relatively easy to plug PayPal in. However, Chandra was focused on making everything really easy for the customer. So, instead of using PayPal, his developers spent two months developing a system where payments could be made in two clicks.
The result of Chandra’s relentless pursuit of simplicity for the customer was a mobile app that has been a big hit.
Very few organizations have the tools to develop a business case for simplicity. There are no models that I’ve come across that articulate the return on investment on making something easy to do. This is a huge gap in management metrics.
We know the costs of making things simple; Two extra months of developer time. But we rarely know the value that will accrue. So, in most organizations the pressure is there not to spend those two months.
Making it simple for the customer causes many challenges for the organization. Customer simplicity is internally disruptive. I once worked with a bank that had an online mortgage application form that requested 14 separate pieces of information from the potential customer. This application perfectly integrated with the bank’s internal systems. The problem was that they were getting 2 enquiries a week through the form.
A new manager arrived and demanded improvements. The web team radically simplified the form, requesting only three pieces of information. The organization was shocked. Internally, everyone hated the form. It’s incomplete, they complained. It won’t integrate with our systems, they complained. We’ll keep getting stupid enquiries from Mickey Mouse, they complained.
The manager decided to give it a try. In the first week they got 180 enquiries. And yes they did get stupid enquiries from Mickey Mouse and the likes. But in the first three months with the simple form they did 20 times more revenue than in the previous three months with the older, more complex form.
Making life easier for the customer makes life more complex for the organization. Staff who are customer-centric are often seen as troublesome by their colleagues because they are always putting the customers’ needs first. There is a very strong internal force to make life as easy, as smooth, as possible.
Many organizations find it very hard to measure outcomes. It’s a much simpler job to measure whether you have a payment system than to measure how easy it is to use your payment system.
I see the same organization-centric thinking around content. The focus becomes on producing the content itself because that’s a relatively easy thing to do. To focus on what the content helps the customer to do is much harder. But that’s where the value lies.
Measuring the content or the app is the old model. Because of the Web we can now measure much better how things are used. Let’s focus less on what we produce and more on the use.