"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.

Borrowing from the Social Sciences

So where does usability fit into all this? The answer is in the ability to provide practical processes for getting in touch with customers. A growing number of "usability people" - or at least practitioners of user-centered design in the online and software world - are tweaking long-standing research processes borrowed from the social sciences in order to fit short timelines and tight budgets.

Where do you start learning more about their needs - and about refining your pitch and your product?

1. Start listening. If your product or website has already been around for a few months, now is a great time to get inside your customers' heads. You can assess the relevance of what's been built by starting with contextual inquiry, visiting customers in the actual physical environment where they use your product or service, and asking them about their specific needs, habits and usage. It's important to be a keen observer as well, because people often say one thing and do/say another.

The advantage of this over, say, a testing lab, is that you get to watch users in their real-world environment; natural environments elicit more natural responses. And this can serve you better than typical satisfaction surveys because you have a chance to ask follow-up questions to dig deep when needed. Don't be afraid to start small if you're low on time or money; you can learn a lot from interviews with just 10 to 15 customers.

If you're just starting out with a brand new product that has yet to be defined, perhaps you'll need to undertake an ethnographic study. It may help to grab someone from a human-factors background to join you for this, because the goal is to understand your customers' natural-usage patterns, and to consider defining features and requirements based on these. Ethnographic studies are almost completely about observing - ask little and rarely intervene.

From either of these types of interviews you'll have a good idea how relevant your existing product or service is in its current state. You'll also have a first-hand understanding of customer needs, and you'll be able to gauge them against any new releases that may already be in the works. In the end, you'll have a root-level understanding of what's fundamentally important (passions, motivations, etc.) to your customers, and your marketing efforts will benefit because you'll be able to address these concerns in a language your customers understand.

2. Let your customers drive. If your company's planning a significant upgrade to a product or service, why not test-run it before getting it out there? Perhaps the most obvious way to test ideas would be in a focus-group setting. Certainly that's an easy way to get feedback from many people in little time, but group dynamics can run their course and taint your data. Consider creating a prototype and testing that with customers in a one-on-one setting. If you spread your prototype revisions out over a couple of months, you can run repeated tests, and hopefully come a bit closer to perfection with your prototype.

Should you wish to take testing farther, ask your customers to help design your prototype - if you ask them to co-design, you're essentially asking them to tell you what's most and least important to them. Card-sorting procedures will provide you with a similar look at how customers categorize features and rank them in terms of relevance to their lives. Again, when time and money are tight, don't be afraid to test with small samples; 10 to 15 test participants are often enough to get decent results. Be sure to test in multiple markets if your customer base is a national one and regional differences could a factor.

These participatory design techniques may not only tell you what's important to your customers, but also expose you to individual mental models that you may not have anticipated. Better to learn these things now; shifts in strategy are cheaper to implement sooner rather than later.

3. Get hypothetical. If you don't have a chance to sit down with real customers, don't be afraid to make them up. The use of personas is catching on quite a bit in the online world because it's an affordable way to profile archetypal users and assess their every interaction with your brand and product, even across multiple platforms.

Define a persona, or fictional character, representing your primary customers, secondary customers, and so on, basing them on existing research or interviews with those in your company who have a good idea who your customers are. Give each persona an identity, including a name, background, and so on, getting perhaps as granular as listing their media diet. Once you've defined your personas, the people in marketing, product development and design have an opportunity to see the "people" who your efforts are focused on.

After you've run each persona through a complete set of scenarios, you'll have a play-by-play view of how your typical customers interact with your product. You'll have a clear, detailed picture of your product really means to them. And those in other departments will have a shared mission: everyone will be able to answer the questions "who is our customer," "what do they need" and "what's the right way to give it to them?"

Of course, none of these techniques are revolutionary, nor are they right for every situation. And they certainly don't represent the full spectrum of methods available to anyone looking to better understand their customers. But each method has proven its worth for many user-centered designers and the teams they work with. Don't be afraid to spearhead some of these efforts on your own - usability isn't just for designers anymore. And it can't hurt to have those who do the promise-making and the promise-keeping working from the same page.

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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.