Customers Speak – Are you Listening?

Archived 2001 Vialogix article originally published in The Charlotte Business Journal

Your VCR madly flashes “12:00.” (Still.)

You watch as the elevator doors rudely close on an approaching rider because you couldn’t find the “Open” button in time.

With a grumble, you abandon your corporate intranet and take 20 minutes to search out an answer from a knowledgeable coworker.

Sound familiar? If so, you’ve suffered poor usability and lack of customer-focused design.

When companies focus on technology rather than customers, and when products aren’t easy to use from the outset, corporate value is burned and consumer goodwill wasted.

Successful developers get customer input before, during and after creation of a technical project. From industrial design to web site restructuring, input improves the purchasing experience, turning browsers into buyers.

That approach is producing sound results.

Timex developed a watch with two large buttons and an uncomplicated display after research determined women are more interested in simply setting the time and less enamored with gadgets for technology’s sake. It quickly became a “Pick of the Month” at female.com.

Saab built its new Viggen car using air force fighter pilot experience to create a cockpit-like interior, giving drivers a more usable environment. “The controls are very logical and easy to use in keeping with Saab’s history of functional aircraft ergonomics,” noted a positive Roadtestonline.com review.

Similarly, web developers must shun the hype and spare the eye candy, beginning instead with customers and the tasks they need to complete.

Customer-focused design is not a step or single element found on a web site or online application. You don’t slap “usability” into your methodology or position statement and have a better model. It is, by definition, a process—one that should affect the creation or redesign of any web project at all stages. The goal of customer-focused design is to enhance the customer experience. It requires the strategic involvement of every area of a company.

When IBM redesigned its web site in 1999, the firm’s User Experience Team gathered input from more than 1,000 users. Using surveys, focus groups, usability testing and e-mail feedback, they consolidated and reengineered the IBM e-commerce initiative into “ShopIBM”.

The result: a 400% increase in online revenue; improved customer feedback, selection as the best corporate website for user experience by Web usability guru Jakob Nielson; and a “Best Business Web Site of 1999” award from the UK’s Financial Times.

Yet Forrester Research reports Fortune 1000 companies spend an average of $1.5 to $2.5 million on web site redesign without knowing if the efforts will make the site easier to use. Usability specialists agree that every dollar spent on testing before a site goes live will save at least $10 in redesign efforts later.

The multiples can be even higher for intranets. Any usability improvement in-house leads directly to saved employee-hours and increased shareholder value.

GE Capital is building the “e-Deal Room,” which will let its lenders review applications online, reducing processing time by 20%. General Electric spokesman Gary Reiner told Forbes magazine that GE would save $1 billion this year on internal-productivity gains from projects such as an improved intranet. (April 30 issue).

Technology is a great equalizer. It can strengthen your customer relationships or drive a wedge through them. As technology becomes more of a commodity, only companies that use it wisely will thrive.

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