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Does Usability Actually Sell Anything?

For Marketers, Internet,Marketing, Marketing Tactics, WebsitesRecently my ClickZ colleague Sean Carton asked, “Are Usability Experts Any Use?” I’ve written before about the need to go beyond usability and focus on persuasive architecture. Nevertheless, Sean’s column struck a very public nerve. In recent threads on the I-Sales and I-Design lists, Jared Spool of User Interface Engineering (UIE) posted that he felt several people somewhat misrepresented his position about the value of design and usability:

I think I’ve been misunderstood…..

I did say that fonts were unimportant. But design is so much more than choosing fonts, especially on the Web….

How are the pages laid out? What information attracts the eyes? How is the site’s important content displayed in the hierarchy? Does the page design force users to go to search? (Search is bad — users only go to search when the design of the page has failed them.)

Jared compares Gap.com with Newport-News.com. In usability tests, he says, “Gap’s site outperformed Newport News by a factor of 10!” The fonts used on both sites are similar, but the overall design is credited for Gap’s success.

Let me point to some numbers as well. I don’t have access to the exact traffic or revenue numbers, but let’s see what we can infer about each of the following Web sites’ results. According to Alexa, Gap.com (#739) appears to have significantly more traffic and reach than Newport-News.com (#2,702). In 2002, The New York Times published a comScore chart of the top 25 online retailers, ranked by revenue. Newport-News came in at number 16; Gap.com is nowhere to be seen. (For a copy of the chart, email me.) If you had read Jared Spool’s post, you wouldn’t have guessed that.

In the NYT article, a couple Newport News employees gave a reasonable explanation of how it made the list:

When asked how the company’s online sales have surged ahead of other higher profile apparel e-tailers, like Lands’ End, J. Crew and Eddie Bauer, Ms. Madonna suggested it was partly because the company takes a different approach to presenting its merchandise.

Rather than classifying merchandise entirely by category, Newport News relies heavily on presenting goods within the context of fashion themes and trends. For instance, following one of the trends dictated by the fashion cognoscenti, the site features a Shades of Summer display that includes a wide variety of clothes that have nothing in common but the brightness of their colors.

That approach, Mr. Ittner said, appeals more to impulse shoppers. “And the fashion business is an impulse business,” he said. “People don’t just wake up and say, ‘I need a red short-sleeve dress.'”

When you look at the world through usability lenses, you miss some of the other, more critical business issues. Jared says:

We measure sales to users who have already decided to purchase products on the site. For users who know what they want, the site should sell it easily. Gap customers could buy 66.0% of what they came for, while Newport News customers could only manage to find and purchase 6.3% of what they wanted. The big difference? Design.

Obviously, Newport News knows how to design for its business, market, and customers quite well. The bottom line is always the bottom line. Nevertheless, Jared’s study shows the need for “findability” for customers who know what they want (one of the three types of Web site visitors). Possibly, Newport News could benefit from improving findability as well.

In the early days of the new economy, Web sites didn’t work. Site owners didn’t spend time fixing business models and marketing plans. They took little time caring about customer relationships or understanding what prospects wanted. They took less time to contemplate and create content and images that were persuasive and instilled desire. They hired designers and programmers and hoped money would trickle in faster than it poured out. When the party was over, they hired usability experts to fix the disasters their techies created and still filed Chapter 11.

Usability experts observe a few people in laboratories (not their normal environment) but turn their noses up at Web analytics that record what large, statistically valid samples actually do. Asking people what they will do is futile; they don’t really know (e.g., they say that they want to eat healthy but “supersize” their value meals). Observing people in a lab is less than optimal, since those are not true market conditions. Observing what people do under real market conditions where the real world distracts and interacts with them is a much more powerful method. For instance, I’ve tested fonts with real offers and real audiences.

Fonts rarely affect conversion rates. However, we’ve conducted simultaneous, large-sample A/B splits on email and Web site copy and found significant change in conversion based on font size and/or style. With one client, we found changing a font style from Arial to Comic Sans in an HTML email increased conversion by almost 30 percent.

In the above example, the message tone was conversational and informal. Comic Sans fit the mood we were trying to create.

Jared summarizes his thoughts as follows:

  • Fonts on the Web: unimportant
  • Design: important
  • Persuasive design: critically important

I would summarize mine this way:

  • Sock puppets: unimportant
  • Usability: important
  • Good programming: necessary
  • Persuasive copy and design: critical
  • Business objectives balanced with customer needs: invaluable
  • Customer satisfaction and profit: priceless

Some great studies come from usability labs, in particular Jared’s UIE, whose research I use often. He does great work. But to his usability hammer, every problem looks like a usability nail. I look at the same data and reach different conclusions. That does not make either of us wrong. The world is not binary. Ignore either of our conclusions, and your business could suffer.

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7 Responses to “Does Usability Actually Sell Anything?”

  1. Zephyr December 11, 2007 at 7:51 am #

    Interesting article. Once again stresses that user experience is bigger than usability, although usability is an essential part of it.

    I do think your statement about usability experts turning their nose up at web analytics is incorrect. Web analytics are a valuable quantitative tool, especially when combined with A/B testing. What it won't tell you, and where the value of usability testing comes in, is WHY some designs work and others don't and how to improve them. A good "usability expert's" toolbox comprises more than usability testing.

    And, oh yeah… although the use of Comic Sans make this designer cringe, it's good to be reminded that real people don't always care about what designers think is right for them. See MySpace 😉

  2. Ben December 12, 2007 at 10:23 am #

    I enjoyed reading this article. However, the trends I observe among usability professionals don't follow what is presented here. I don't hear of people using labs much anymore, for example. It's also common to use an open task like "Here's $100, buy yourself something you like on this website" as opposed to "Find a short sleeved red dress." Presumably Newport News would do well with that former which encourages impulse shopping, and it was demonstrated that the Gap does a good job on the latter. A great site might satisfy both the Apollonian (rational and self-directed) and Dionysian (pleasure seeking and impulsive) shoppers.

  3. Paul December 14, 2007 at 4:07 am #

    You are making a lot of assumptions in this article. First, you are using revenue to judge the websites, but the amount of revenue difference that can be attributed by the Newport-News.com approach is vague ("Ms. Madonna suggested it was partly because…" is not exactly a strong statement). Perhaps Gap customers go to the Gap website to find clothes, and then go to the store to try them on and to buy (they are, after all, on nearly every corner).

    I'm not sure who in the usability world turns their nose up at analytics- I personally eat them up but most analytics are completely unusable because of poor software. Analytics can also be misleading if you do not understand the context of the numbers. For example, you might see one page was visited 50,000 times. If you don't ask around you might now ever know that this happened due to an advertisement and that the traffic would likely drop off.

    One interesting point you are getting at it that a usability study is inherently limited by what you test and who tests it. These limitations are then often left off the results, so instead of saying, "For users who knew what they wanted, the site was very usable," the statement is usually, "the site was very usable." This is a big problem.

  4. Paul T December 17, 2007 at 5:52 am #

    Sean Carton's article is four years old and it reads like it. Here's a quote,

    "It's hard to argue with these folks. After all, we're talking science here, right? More than three clicks to get to a piece of information? Bad! Users must scroll? Failure! Too many "graphical design elements"? Strip 'em out! If it doesn't measure up, it must go. If it doesn't measure up, it's wrong."

    Actually I would have thought that came from 9 or 10 years ago. Those comments don't sound like they come from someone who hasn't worked with a usability professional on a design project. If he has, he should have interviewed more practitioners before he hired them.

    Like everything in life, usabilility evaluations must be taken in the right context. For competitive evaluations, I think that usability testing is often a bad tool. A test necessarily forces you to assume that the sites have the same goal and same business model. But it is often the case that they don't, as in the GAP v. Newport News situation.

    Usability expertise is most value as part of the whole design process. It's a quality that should be built into a site, and rarely comes with hard and fast instructions. I have been conducting usability research for 5 years, and I've spent more time convincing people *not* to worry about the length of pages, or the absolute number of clicks on a path than I care to remember. A number of years ago, Jarod did a good job of convincing me that they weren't important; I have seen that demonstrated to me dozens of times.

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