Facebook vs. MySpace. Netflix vs. BlockBuster. Amazon.com vs. Barnes & Noble. iPhone vs. Windows Mobile.

You know off the top of your head which company won each of these epic battles for market share. They did it by having a relentless focus on their customers’ digital experience—or, what those in the industry, call "user experience."

So what is this thing we call user experience?

Every interaction prospects or customers have with your company online is part of their user experience. Can they find the important information they're seeking? Did you provide a compelling reason to give up personal data? Could they complete the transaction without errors? Did the design of the website or app feel consistent with your company brand? Did you surprise and delight them? Each interaction influences their impression of your company.

In fact, the user experience is your brand. In every study we conduct at AnswerLab (the digital research consultancy I co-founded in 2004) we see that the experience a visitor has with your website or mobile app directly correlates with his or her feelings about your overall company brand.  Visitors who have a poor experience attribute more negative feelings to the brand and vice versa.

Poor user experience hurts sales

To understand the effect of a poor online experience, in February of 2010, Forrester Research asked consumers what they do when they can't accomplish a goal online. The outcome? The vast majority of visitors said they switch to pricier (for the company) channels—most likely the phone. Others go to a competitor, while still others give up entirely. "We built simple ROI [return on investment] models to understand the financial implications of this behavior on a company's bottom line and found that for an average retailer the result is millions of dollars in lost revenue and unnecessary costs," according to the Forrester Report Web Sites That Don’t Support Customers' Goals Waste Millions.

The Forrester example is specific to a retail website, in which the primary goal is a sale.  However, the same principle holds for other types of websites, mobile apps, or software.  Delivering a great user experience is critical at each step to the final "conversion," whether that involves signing up for a newsletter, telling a friend about a content site or app, downloading a white paper on a lead generation site, reducing inbound calls to customer service, or taking an offline action like asking a doctor about a medication.

So how do you build an excellent user experience?

Companies who win the battle for market share make sure every digital interaction is a positive one. They do this by talking to customers at each stage of developing websites and mobile apps, and by observing customers’ behavior in context. The questions they seek to answer include:

1. What do our customers need from us?

2. Which of our ideas and concepts will best meet their needs?

3. How can we organize the website or app to best fit how they think?

4. Can they use our proposed designs and prototypes easily?

5. Is the experience having an ongoing positive impact on our brand?

Most importantly, they incorporate customer feedback early in the process because it costs dramatically more to fix problems after your website or app is live.

Building a website or mobile app is similar to building a house. An information architect constructs a wire frame, just like an architect creates a blue print. Let's say you decided to change the design of the master bathroom because the layout was not useful for your family. When the master bath design is merely an idea on paper, the cost to change is fairly insignificant. However, if you decide to redesign the bathroom after it's built, the cost is so high that you might decide to live unhappily with a non-functional room. The same goes for your website or mobile app. By spending time getting the design and experience right for your customers early in the process, you save significant dollars and resources down the line.

Unhappy web customers can hurt your reputation 

While it may be true that the best advertising is word-of-mouth, never lose sight of the fact it also can be the worst advertising. People listen to their friends and colleagues. Customers talk, blog, and leave reviews about good experiences—and bad ones. It's no longer the case that the brand with the biggest ad-spend or the greatest market share can rest easy. Companies with a relentless focus on user experience are the ones who win.