Monthly Archives: February 2009

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Usability Can and Should be Applied Across the Entire Customer Experience (Not Just a Web Site)

Many years ago, while working at a large health insurance company I stumbled across a great usability truth. It wasn’t by design that I found this truth, just dumb luck really. What was that truth? That usability is not just about web sites or web applications, that is has the potential to help the entire customer experience.

At the time, I was busy trying to make a difference for our company by conducting web site usability improvement projects. All of my attention was on the sales and marketing aspect of our web sites, how to improve conversion, make easier and fast sign up forms, etc.

As part of my job I visited a physician group and talked to the Director of the group. He was very excited about my visit, and gushed all kinds of great ideas on how our companies could partner together to offer a better experience for his customers (health care patients) and our customers (insured people) through improved telecommunications with enhanced IVRs, more efficient service with web-based applications and information sharing and by using ID Card readers in multiple physician locations.

Unfortunately, the main purpose of my visit was not to enable a better customer experience across these customer touch-points, and I was unable to act on any of his ideas. But I was very excited and couldn’t wait to discuss this with my boss.

My visit got me thinking; here was a ripe opportunity to apply usability, design and customer experience improvements to make a better experience for my company, the physician group AND our shared customers! That’s a Win-Win-Win all the way around!My boss at the time, although interested, was not able to act on this bold idea and as sometimes happens in the corporate world, this usability and customer experience improvement opportunity faded away.

Customer Service vs Customer Experience

I was recently reminded of this after reading a post by customer experience guru Bruce Temkin. In his post, “Don’t Confuse Customer Service with Customer Experience,” the point is made that the customer experience extends to all segments of a business. Bruce has a nice chart that visually demonstrates how customer service is but one aspect of the customer experience. The customer experience extends to all customer touch-points including sales, marketing, customer service, tech support, accounting, etc.

Usability is the Customer Experience

If you as a usability advocate replace “customer experience” with “usability” in the chart, you quickly realize that there are many, many opportunities to apply usability and design improvements across a company, and that the web site is just the tip of the iceberg. The opportunity to improve IVRs, web sites, customer service forms & communications, financial applications, etc. etc. etc. are almost endless. And any improvement you make on any of these touchpoints helps your company and your customers. These types of projects almost sell themselves!

Usability Can and Should be Applied Across the Customer Experience

Usability testing and enhancement techniques work quite well across all customer touch-points, including telecommunications, web sites, card readers or other technology devices and even locations like stores or offices.

For 2009, my suggestion is to make a determined effort to take advantage of usability testing and design enhancements beyond web sites, the improvement to the customer experience will be a win for you, your company and your customers.

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Usability & Search Engine Optimization Share the Same Problem: How to Define Return On Investment

A recent post by Search Engine Optimization (SEO) guru Bruce Clay discussed the difficulty of providing an estimate of SEO Return On Investment (ROI) for CFOs of companies. The issue is most CFO’s demand an ROI estimate for search engine optimization prior to an engagement, but as Bruce point’s out in his article this is actually not possible.

Usability ROI

As with SEO (which I consider a close-cousin to usability by the way) usability shares the exact same ROI problem. Although CFOs want and need ROI, it is not ethical or wise to provide a guaranteed ROI prior to the commencement of a project, simply because there is not enough information, or control, to accurately estimate the usability impact on ROI.

There are 4 reasons why an accurate ROI is not possible:

  1. An assessment of the severity of the usability issues facing the web site or application must be conducted. This assessment IS the usability project, including understanding Personas, Critical Tasks, and conducting a Heuristic Evaluation, and much more. Without this information any usability company guaranteeing an ROI is just guessing.
  2. The company that requests the usability study may not be able to do all the recommended usability changes. Often, due to business or technical issues not all of the usability recommendations needed to produce the ROI are able to be executed. This means money (or in this case ROI) is left on the table. Without the ability to have all recommendations made, it’s unlikely an expected usability ROI will be accomplished.
  3. ROI is compromised if other critical departments that influence the customer experience are not involved. Most often, a usability project is requested by a particular division in a company. However, other divisions that directly impact the experience (thus ROI) are often not involved. Their inability or unwillingness to make changes will impact the anticipated ROI. As an example, think in this case of a Marketing department wanting web site usability improvements to increase sales. If however, the back-end sales systems that are controlled by a different department are not engaged, the full benefit of usability improvements to increase sales, and thus ROI, may not happen.
  4. The online environment is constantly changing, and estimates based on historical data cannot forecast future ROI with accuracy. Consider the changes in the economy in the past year, would you be willing to estimate the ROI of improved sales from usability improvements for that same Marketing department I mentioned earlier if you knew their traffic, or the type of visitors to their web site would be severely changed?

For all of these reasons, and more, it’s unethical, and unwise, to provide a guaranteed ROI for usability improvements. The reality is usability improvements can and do significantly improve ROI for companies every day, it’s just that guaranteeing an ROI upfront prior to conducting usability audits is not possible, nor advisable.

So, what do you say to the CFO who’s asking about ROI?

First, provide the CFO with the above reasons why an ROI estimate is not possible prior to the commencement of the usability project. Be prepared, this may not be accepted, after all the CFO and most likely the rest of the company are held to very precise and unyielding goals in terms of numbers.

Next, talk about some examples of ROI that were accomplished from prior engagements. In the past, when I was consulting I would often mention specific examples of ROI gained, but without mentioning the name of the client (unless I had permission to use their name of course). Nothing sells like success, and mentioning other usability success stories can add weight to the argument that the usability project will be successful, but without a guaranteed ROI up-front.

I used to mention that doing nothing was the only guarantee, a guarantee of the same results. This is the same as the sage old advice that doing something over and over again, but expecting different results, is not logical. By conducting the usability project, change, and thus different (better) results are possible.

Finally, understand that CFO’s of a necessity must live by numbers, and ROI numbers are sometimes required prior to project approval. You may find that sometimes it’s necessary to walk away from the project, because ROI is a pass/fail and without it the CFO is unwilling to conduct the project.

If the CFO insists that an ROI is required, it may be tempting to start throwing out a range of ROI estimates that might be possible. Speaking from experience I can tell you this only opens the door for the CFO to start pinning exact numbers down. It’s a no-win situation if you start down this path. If you hope that the CFO won’t remember the ROI at the end of the project, or that unusual circumstances may result in the numbers being set aside, don’t count on it. The odds are whatever number you promised won’t be met, and thus you will not be trusted, and worse, bad word-of-mouth may start spreading at the executive level. Worse, your manager allies in the company may have a negative perception placed on them, causing them to be far less trustful of usability in the future, again generating bad word-of-mouth.

Conclusion: Don’t Estimate Usability ROI.

CFOs will want ROI, and sometimes a usability project will not be approved without it. My recommendation is to not try to guess at ROI. Instead, explain why ROI is almost impossible to guarantee, then use the opportunity to educate the CFO from examples of ROI gained from prior usability engagements.

Do you have favorite techniques for demonstrating the value of usability without a guaranteed ROI? If so, please share them in the comments!

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Web Site Customer Satisfaction Surveys Can be Usability Early Warning Radar

A brief story about customer satisfaction and usability:

Joe Usability conducts usability testing for Joe conducts usability tests for new web site applications, as well as on his company’s existing web site. However, often Joe is asked to do usability testing on the web site only after a problem has been found, usually because the problem is causing lost sales. Joe tries to keep ahead, but he always feels like he’s in a reactive mode. His internal customers like usability, but they tell him they feel like usability testing is slow, and not quick enough to discover problems in a proactive manner.

Mary Usability (no relation) conducts usability testing for Mary conducts usability testing just like Joe. However, Mary does one extra thing, Mary uses her company’s online web site customer satisfaction surveys to ask a couple of usability related questions. Mary reviews the responses to those questions weekly. She has found through those customer comments several issues that caused her to conduct additional specific usability tests on certain pages. Those tests resulted in finding usability issues that unknown to the business were causing lost sales. Mary’s internal customers like usability, and tell her they feel like usability testing is fast and quick, often identifying and fixing problems in a proactive manner.

Although this story is fictional, it does point out the advantage of using a customer satisfaction survey to gather usability feedback about a web site. If you work for a firm that uses web site customer satisfaction surveys, then you potentially have access to one of the best usability early warning systems available. Think of it as usability early warning radar. The idea is to include a question or two on the customer satisfaction survey that will alert you to possible issues well before they begin showing up on monthly sales or other transaction reports.

Why can usability questions on a web site customer satisfaction survey be helpful? Because if you work for a large corporation, then it’s possible that changes to your company’s web site can happen without usability being addressed. You may not even be aware that web site changes were made. Customers who are interacting with your web site however are fully aware of issues caused by changes, and will tell you about those issues if given a chance. No, they won’t be able to express in detail what the issue is, but by seeing the same type of comments over and over again, you’ll have an idea usually of where to start looking.

When changes happen that cause usability issues, the only way that most people usually become aware that there’s a problem is when they review their weekly or monthly reporting. “Sudden” decreases in numbers of interactions or conversion rates will occur, and warning bells will only then sound throughout the company. Subsequent usability testing may find the issue, but only after the damage has been done. For eCommerce sites, this damage is lost revenue, which is a very bad thing indeed.

Whether you have a large or small web site, it’s always a good idea to include a customer satisfaction survey for your visitors. Besides the obvious questions of overall satisfaction and whether a customer’s visit was productive or not, you can include a few usability questions you can monitor on a daily or weekly basis (assuming you have the ability to access your survey results).

There is always (and rightfully so) a concern from a survey team that too many questions on a survey will reduce response rate, so you may receive push-back if you make a request to add a question or two to an existing customer satisfaction survey. But by working with the survey team to help them understand your objective, and the benefit to the company, you can probably add just one or two questions that will provide you with enough information to alert you to potential usability issues.

Typical usability questions on a survey must by nature be rather broad. You won’t be receiving the same detailed information you normally receive when conducting 1-on-1 performance based testing, for example. In addition, your usability survey questions will vary based on the type of survey, the format of the questions and the scales used.

In general, I like to try to use 2 survey questions, the first being relatively simple, like:

“Did you have any difficulties while navigating or using this web site?”

This question has a Yes or No response.

For all who answer Yes an example of a follow-up question is;

“Please describe the difficulty you experienced.”

This question has a text entry box for the response, so survey respondents can write in more detail about their issues.

If however, you can only have one question on the satisfaction survey, then combine the above two questions into something such as; “Did you have any difficulties while navigating or using this web site? If so, please describe the difficulty,” with a Text Entry box response.

As an aside, some in Marketing or Advertising might wish to include an additional question asking the customer to tell them about positives of the web site, or of the product. These positive responses can be collected and used for testimonials. If this question is present, you can use it as well, for example to measure the ratio of positive to negative comments received after completing a usability improvement.

Assuming these usability questions, or questions like them are on the customer satisfaction survey on your web site, and assuming you have access to the daily or weekly reporting, you can now keep an eye on the usability responses in near real-time.

If you suddenly start seeing a spike in Yes, I had Issues answers, and complaints come in of a difficult to find page or web site function not working, you now have an instant warning of a potential problem which may be usability related. Further usability testing of that issue could be warranted. I would add here that you may often find technical issues being reported by your customers, which might be helpful if forwarded to the technical team.

So there you have it, you can be proactive in sleuthing potential web site usability issues by using a few well written usability questions in a web site customer satisfaction survey, and tracking responses on a frequent basis. The end result will be you using usability testing and improvements to enhance the experience well before other business units come to you with an emergency of conversion or sales on their hands, and isn’t it nice to be ahead of the curve?

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Cross Channel Usability Can Make or Break an Organization

Most of the time when people in corporations think of usability, they think of web sites. The reality is usability can (and should!) be applied across multiple channels of a corporation. This is because customers do not solely interact with just a web site, or just a phone call. Most customers will interact with a company using multiple channels at multiple times. The customer experience then can and should be improved across all the channels, not just a web site. The problem is this is difficult, because each channel within a corporation has it’s own goals, strategies and tactics. Thus just trying to provide a consistent communication and customer experience across channels can be difficult to do well.

In a recent article by Colleen Jones at, titled “Conversing Well Across Channels,” a point is made that trying to coordinate and enhance the customer’s experience by communicating in a consistent manner across all channels is good for the customer, and therefore good for business. As is stated in the article:

“The ideal experience lets customers carry on their conversation with a company whenever and wherever the customer desires, by whatever means is most appropriate.”.

She continues…

“The resulting challenge for businesses is conversing effectively with customers no matter what channel they choose. Do not underestimate the difficulty of this challenge! I find the challenge of cross-channel conversation particularly daunting. Successfully conversing across channels requires most companies to overhaul their traditional approaches to doing business.”

I like this article because I believe it succinctly describes the issues facing a corporation, and several possible solutions for helping to improve usability and the customer experience.

7 Practical Steps for Conversing Well

Among the solutions identified in the article there are 7 practical steps for conversing well across channels, I urge you to read the whole article, because Colleen provides additional detail, but to quickly summarize they are:

  1. Do a user experience or content project for a different channel.
  2. Start analyzing customer inquiries across channels.
  3. Aggregate any channel issues you discover through user or customer research or usability testing.
  4. Start listing inconsistencies across channels.
  5. Get permission to observe customer interactions in one of your company’s stores or call or chat centers.
  6. Start cleaning up your content—even in training materials and scripts.
  7. Promote any successes or insights you’ve gained through the other six steps throughout your organization.

Effecting Usability Improvements Across Channels

I believe beyond these good ideas, there are three additional points that must be considered if you are to actually improve the usability of the cross channel customer experience. They are:

1. Identify and track the metrics that are used by each channel to measure customer satisfaction, creating channel-specific and a compilation all-channels measurement.
Frankly, tracking a single set of metrics across channels may or may not be possible. Goals and metrics for success in a customer service unit as an example, may be completely different than those in a small business acquisition unit. This is why holistic metrics such as NetPromoter and the like were created. Using a single easy-to-capture metric across business units means everyone is measured the same, but as some experts will tell you a single metric may not be enough information to act upon. Most likely, some combination of customer satisfaction, usability and business metrics can be used to track performance. These metrics are important, as they will be used to determine the success or failure of the usability or customer experience improvements that will be made.

2. Enlist channel manager buy-in for usability or customer experience improvements by attaching the improvement projects to the manager’s goals and compensation.
Want to get something done? Just attach a manager’s bonus to a project, it’s amazing how much attention and energy will be focused on that project! By focusing a goal or compensation or both on a usability or customer experience improvement project, you can be assured of much more focus and help from channel managers. This by and of itself is most often enough to ensure almost any project will get the resources and help needed to succeed. Without this, you can still get your cross channel usability or customer experience improvement project accomplished, but you may find it more difficult obtaining resources or buy-in and support from the all-important channel managers. Of course, it’s almost impossible to get goals and compensation attached to a manager without executive support, thus…

3. Gain support from executives by clearly defining the Return On Investment (ROI) for the usability or customer experience improvements.
This is critical if point 2 above is to be approved and executed. You absolutely can accomplish usability or customer experience improvements without executive support, but it’s very much like rowing a boat upstream in a fast moving river. It’s smarter, and easier, to obtain the necessary support across channels by having a clear and direct sponsorship of the enhancement project from the top. The problem is, executives must clearly understand and appreciate the ROI attached to these projects, and that can be difficult to define. The other problem is once you’ve indicated a potential ROI, you will be expected to accomplish it, so set expectations accordingly. But don’t be surprised if a minor ROI obtains no or low support. The trick is to identify enough enhancements to make the cross channel projects worth doing, but to not promise improvements that are almost impossible to accomplish, or unobtainable.

Cross Channel Usability

So, there you have it. Three additional considerations for you if you decide to get your cross channel usability or enhancement projects off the ground and started. It’s not easy, but then again things of value seldom are.

Do you have additional ideas on how to get cross channel usability or customer satisfaction projects started? Share them with your fellow readers!