User-Focused Design Principles Shape the Customer Experience

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Ever have one of those days? You just finished entering three days worth of data into your new information system. You know, the one that took your company a year to select and two more years to implement. The one that promised to "streamline and transform your key business processes." The one you had to have. Now here you are. You have finished keying in data. It wasn't easy or fun, but at least you're done. You are ready for the good stuff. You click on the magic wand icon and "Error: Parameters out of bounds." Here we go again.

Luckily, you have that customer support number handy. You know, the one on the yellow sticky on the lower left corner of your monitor. The one you called two days ago, and last week. You hope this snafu won't take more than 45 minutes to resolve. You can always hope.

Welcome to the customer experience. We all have them. Some are good, others bad. A variety of factors the user interface (UI), customer support, marketing messages, etc. shape these experiences. All of these things collectively create our view of a product, service or provider.

In the e-business world, a growing number of companies are implementing user-focused design principles to create a positive customer experience and gain a competitive advantage. Usability is becoming a necessity, as the barriers separating businesses and customers are shattered. As business managers become more savvy, the customer experience is becoming more critical.

"I think that e-commerce companies that are selling directly to consumers on the web understand that usability is the top indicator of success," says Jeff Rubin. Rubin is a managing partner at The Usability Group (, a user experience consultancy headquartered in Morganville, N.J. His group helps clients grow their technology business around the customer experience. Rubin's clients, including International Paper, Intel, Intuit and FedEx, have already seen increases in market share, customer retention, conversion rates and overall customer satisfaction by implementing user-centered design principles.

Toward a New Usability

Experts in human factors design consider the World War II era the birthplace of usability. During this period, human factors experts helped redesign and standardize fighter jet cockpits after a series of fatal accidents. The advent of the mainframe computer in modern industry ignited the second wave of the usability revolution. While developers still believed that users would ultimately adapt to their machines, and fixed only the most egregious usability violations, management began to recognize usability as an issue.

Usability only became a business-driving objective with the explosion of the Internet. "Usability has risen to the top one or two market factors that affect the bottom line," Rubin says. "In fact, I don't think that it's an exaggeration to say that user experience on an e-business application is the number one predictor of success."

During his recent keynote address at the Ericcson Conference on Usability in Athlone, Ireland, Rubin stressed the strategic role the user experience plays in gaining a competitive advantage. "With the explosion of new economy products and services, the notion of 'usability' has expanded, evolved and been thrust into the corner office of the enterprise. No longer limited to a focus on computer/human interaction, usability must now address the entire range of the customer experience."

Rubin remembers the early days of the usability movement, when human factors engineers focused on the product as the key to success. In the 1970s, he staffed the Human Performance Technology Center at AT&T Bell Laboratories, one of the first industrial usability testing laboratories in the United States. At that time, Bell was developing its enormously complicated mainframe telecommunications systems that often left users scratching their heads. Rubin's job was to make these systems more user-friendly. While this was his first experience with human factors in technology, Rubin began to realize that the product wasn't the only thing that could benefit from human factors principles.

Today, Rubin sees usability reaching beyond the product into the entire customer experience. "The customer experience for products and services has become more challenging, multi-faceted, and demanding as technology has evolved," he says. "It now includes such elements as external company communications, branding, customer and sales support, and cultural and social factors."

Rubin's group helps clients implement user-focused principles across their entire business. Ideally, The Usability Group gets involved in the early stages and helps their clients develop customer experience models that are independent of the technology. "The starting point of usability is not the product," Rubin says. "You can start developing a model of the customer experience and customer interactions well in advance of technology and graphic design considerations. If you start considering the customer experience too late, you often make design decisions based on faulty assumptions."

Reaping the Rewards

Implementing user-focused design principles takes discipline and time, but the impact is immediate. A good UI (with clear navigation and easy-to-locate functionality) enables users to quickly and accurately complete tasks. Good customer support enables customers to get answers quickly and get back to work. By combining a good UI with strong customer support, you increase the customer's productivity, creating positive customer experiences and satisfied customers.

Rubin emphasizes that user-focused design does not only benefit customers. While some companies are having trouble adapting to the new role of usability, others have embraced it and have seen the results. Prescient Systems, a leading supply chain management solutions provider, adopted user-focused design principles while developing the latest version of their XEi software suite. Prescient's work is paying dividends.

Industry analysts consider the software among the easiest to use in the industry. Julie Fraser, an analyst and consultant at Industry Directions, Inc., says "Prescient Systems is extremely flexible. [Their software is] built to accommodate a range of capabilities and to change as the company changes." Fraser also emphasizes the software's ease of use and ease of implementation. In an industry where software implementations take anywhere from 18 to 24 months, Prescient's high level of usability enables the software to be up and running in eight weeks. A user-friendly UI makes customer training easier, and a responsive customer support group helps users resolve issues quickly. All of this means quicker return on investment for clients, and a high level of client satisfaction.

The latest Supply Chain Planning 2000 report released by the Meta Group's software evaluation company, Spex, also emphasized the high level of usability built into the Prescient's XEi suite. "The entire suite is very user friendly and flexible. The user interface is customizable and easily navigated." The Spex supply chain management research module highlights functionality levels as well as technical variations among leading products in the field.

On a larger scale, companies like and America Online have also experienced tremendous success building their business around the user. In their efforts to become "the world's most customer-centric company," CEO Jeff Bezos preaches the user-focused ethic from atop his growing pile of books, CDs, and gadgets. "In many ways, we're a one-trick pony," Bezos told Business Week. "It's just a good trick."

One of the first companies to capitalize on usability was America Online. "AOL is a great example of building a company around the user experience and a user-friendly theme," says Rubin. "They signed up millions of people because they were so much easier to use than CompuServe, when CompuServe was technically a lot better. AOL stole the market through their commitment to ease of use and content for their non-technical audience."

In each case, senior management adopted the customer-centered ethic and rigorously spread the message from the top of the company through the entire infrastructure.

The support of senior management is critical in implementing a user-centered ethic, especially when integrating the click business with the brick business. Rubin works extensively with Fortune 500 companies who are doing just that taking their first steps into the e-business arena and hoping to do it well. One of the fundamental obstacles he addresses with clients is the "silo effect," or segmentation within the corporate structure. In the modern organization, separate departments handle sales, customer support, development, marketing and branding activities, often with little or no communication between them. Users interacting with that firm do not make those subtle distinctions. From the user's perspective it's all one company, and if one "silo" fails to meet the user's expectation, the experience is ruined. "Ultimately senior management has to be involved in the customer experience strategy, to serve as an umbrella over the silos and to get them talking to each other," Rubin contends. "Anything less and you're going to have less than satisfied customers."

About The Author

Michael Ryan is a usability specialist with Prescient Systems (, a leading provider of high value, quick ROI supply chain solutions. As an advocate of the user-centered design process, Michael defines user requirements, performs user interface prototyping and testing, and develops user assistance materials to bridge the gap between users and technology.

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