While user experience was once considered the realm of programmers and web designers, that's no longer the case. By 2020, the user experience is expected to overtake price and product features as a key differentiator for brands. Even today, 70 percent of purchases are influenced by how customers feel they're being treated, from direct interactions to small signals that their perspectives are valued.
User experience isn't isolated to how a product or service looks; beyond the image or interface, user experience is about the journey a customer takes and the moments of delight she experiences along the way. UX is about the entire set of touchpoints a customer experiences, from her first visit to a brand's website to her weekly stops at its store. Design and technology band together to ensure her encounters are positive, building a strong relationship.
And that relationship is exactly what can fuel a business's growth. It's important to realize that there's no such thing as a neutral design, especially in an era when 80 percent of consumers trust reviews as much as recommendations from friends and family. In fact, Marketing Week found that 83 percent of marketers place customer experience in a more central role than they did five years prior; only 30 percent placed advertising in a more central role, underscoring the importance of thinking like users rather than brands.
Investing in usability testing -- learning to see through users' eyes -- can be a game changer for not only customers, but also for the businesses serving them.
Identifying Pain Points and Moments of Delight
Getting to know customers' pain points is just as important as knowing what makes them ecstatic. "User experience is as much about psychology as it is about design," explains Sandy Marsico, founder and CEO of brand experience agency Sandstorm Design. "Mapping the customer journey, filtering in context, and confronting user emotions -- bad or good -- helps companies identify what's motivating customer behavior and tailor their response to it."
Marsico says her team goes through six UX steps: defining the problem and establishing metrics; conducting user research and persona development; identifying user flows and customer journey maps; exploring information architecture through the user's eyes; creating with an iterative, data-driven design process; and conducting usability testing and analysis. These steps enable the team to offer suggestions and hypotheses based on research and their understanding of a user group. They carry those all the way through testing with actual users, where UX designers can see where customers are tripped up or relieved at finding an easy-to-follow process.
"Usability testing only takes three or four weeks, and we can uncover about 80 percent of a brand's UX problems with a handful of users," Marsico says. "We've seen that short-term investment result in saving brands tens of thousands of dollars -- or making brands even more -- by prioritizing the right features and functionality; solving critical conversion errors before any development work has been done, eliminating expensive rework; or driving a straightforward increase in sales and average cart size."
And usability testing isn't restricted to large companies with lots of resources at their disposal -- startups can also successfully pull on usability testing to accomplish more. Becca Selah, the former product designer at startup SkyKick, said she launched usability initiatives that led to a redesign of one of the company's most well-known products, as well as a better understanding of its customers.
"We started user testing one of our products after it went into beta. After the engineering team spent six months working on it," Selah explained. "After three usability tests, it was clear that a key part of the new experience was confusing to users. Had we shown early prototypes to users, we could have caught this issue earlier, saving our team time and engineering hours."
Earning Quick Wins at the Outset
Brands can get immediate ROI from usability testing by looking for changes that don't require a lot of effort but can result in a big payoff. While different brands have different customers with different needs and wants, there are a few universal truths that most companies can earn traction with:
1. Define your goals and your user's goals.
Many websites start with good intentions, but over time, business goals and multiple stakeholders start to add too much content, too many features, and overwhelming promotions that clutter and distract from the end goal in mind. The easiest win is to start with a task analysis to determine exactly what your users are coming to your site to do and what you want your users to do to positively impact your business's metrics. Use these key tasks and goals as a filter to help you prioritize changes to your website or web application.
2. Create a layout that's easy to follow.
A weak search function can send visitors fleeing; if a quick search didn't result in anything remotely resembling their search terms, they assume the company doesn't have anything to offer. The same applies to site architecture or organization that's unclear. People who don't naturally gravitate to the search bar are certainly looking for menus, and buried subcategories can result in frustration. A little card sorting can help a team determine how people approach its site and resolve some long-standing arguments, like whether to use a hamburger menu.
3. Offer visual cues to keep users active.
Marsico says that visual cues help users determine what's next or where they need to go. A national retailer, for example, had its new user interface tested, particularly its homepage with the popular design trend of utilizing a large product hero and lifestyle image. Usability test results showed visitors didn't realize there was more content below the image, which created a "false bottom."
"To solve this, we recommended adding either an arrow or to bring some content higher up to illustrate more products below along with messaging to indicate action," she said. She also notes that cluttering a page -- by displaying too many events or showing too many options -- can overwhelm users. Companies should instead opt to create sections that lead to more detailed information.
Usability testing impacts every business and will more strongly influence how brands are perceived. Investing in research and testing can help leaders determine what motivates their customers and how they can better engage them, creating positive relationships that will keep those customers coming back for more.