"Usability" is a concept that's caught fire in many professional circles lately. Unfortunately, there's little consensus on what it actually means: maybe you think of "usability" as that last-minute QA test done just before launch, or perhaps you picked up a book on usability, and feel inspired to redesign your home page.

Regardless of what you've heard about usability, set it aside for now, because what's important is the concept's overarching principle: the goal of usability, or user-centered design, is to build useful products and usable websites by a) researching customer needs and b) building solutions based on those needs.

The objectives of user-centered design are nearly the same as those within an advertising agency's account planning department, or with most respectable marketing research groups…you're trying to understand your customers' behaviors and motivations, and you want to let that knowledge influence the direction of your product and its promise.

Promises Broken are Opportunities Lost

All too often, however, marketing professionals fixate on selling the promise of a product, and skip out on fulfilling that promise. The delivery of a promise is best left to the product designers, the distribution folks, and the customer service people, right? Perhaps so, but if you're ignoring your customers after you've crafted your pitch, you're missing out on a chance to create a more precise, intimate and alluring pitch to your existing customers - and to convert them from single-shot statistics into long-term relationships.

As an example, let's say that you're directing the marketing for an online bank. You've got positive press, and your direct mail and online marketing efforts draw incredible response rates. Even the interest rates are low, so you know there's something to keep customers around once you've brought them to the door. Problem is, the website stinks. Nobody knows how to use it. Your customers have a hard time reading their statement, much less buying stocks or applying for a home refinancing. The complaint calls to customer service almost outnumber the total number of visits to your home page.

Your customers, at this point, have two choices: 1) they can leave to sign up with the competition; or 2) they can stick around out of laziness, continue banking with your company, and dislike every minute of it. Neither scenario has a very happy ending: even if they stay, they'll tell friends about their bad experiences, plus they'll cost an arm and a leg in customer-service resources.

If you're not developing a relationship with existing customers - choosing instead to focus on pitching only to new ones - then you're fighting a losing battle. You've heard it before: it's cheaper to retain existing customers than it is acquire new ones.

Okay, new scenario: the online bank isn't very hard to use after all. The word from customer service is that people are generally happy with the site and their banking products. And the business is somewhat profitable. Your next challenge, then, is to grow existing customers of one or two banking products into lifelong customers, who look to your bank for all their financial needs.

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Noel Franus is managing director for Sonic ID (sonicid.com), a sonic branding and identity consultancy in Portland, Oregon and London. He writes regularly on sonic branding and identity at intentionalaudio.com and sonicid.com.