Is Poor Usability Killing Your Chances for Success?

Paul Rosenfeld is the CEO and Co-Founder of Fanminder, a mobile marketing firm helping small businesses, based in Silicon Valley, CA.

Paul Rosenfeld

Paul Rosenfeld

If there’s one reason software start-ups fail it’s because they don’t acquire customers.

And if they don’t acquire customers, at least one root cause will be it’s “product ain’t usable.”

I am amazed by the piss-poor user experience of online software these days. At Fanminder, we depend on dozens of online services. Most are barely usable and many are downright crap.

Allow me to blow off some steam by ranting about a few of those services here:

  • The most popular text marketing service for small businesses (not us, yet 🙂 ) took 26 screens to send a single text. Ugh!
  • Go to your Twitter Following List. Sort by name. Oh, you can’t?? Or send a direct message from this list. No can do.
  • Using TweetDeck or Twhirl to augment Twitter? You’ll need the eyes of a San Fran Gen Y’er with that white on black and tiny fonts.
  • Goto Meeting wanted me as a customer, but their UI couldn’t give me a way to download their app. WebEx professed it’s adoration for me, yet I couldn’t login with my new credentials.
  • GoDaddy – need I even bother?

If you’re a marketer peddling software, much of the success of acquiring and keeping customers will ultimately rest on your product’s user experience. Sure there are some exceptions to the rule where the novelty and price (aka FREE) out weigh usability factors, but if your marketing programs are not achieving the desired results, it may be time to take an honest look at your product.

Here’s a few ways to figure out where your product stands on the usability scale:

  • Review the product’s log files. I know this sounds scary but you don’t need to be a geek to dig into the numbers. Trust me, just ask to see the log files – all online usage can be boiled down to numbers and good product developers look at this actual behavior to glean all types of key learnings.
  • Watch people use the service. Log files will leave out an untold number of visual cues critical to your evaluation. Observing people live (who aren’t your friends or family) shows you ease of use. Are they able to rapidly and intuitively complete the top 5 or 10 tasks your software is designed to solve for? Ask your product manager what those 5-10 tasks are – if you get back, “I never thought about this!” then you have part of your answer.
  • What’s your trial abandonment rate? If conversion seems low, dig deeper. Call a handful of abandoners and find out why they left.
  • Listen to customer support calls. Get out of your cube, sit with support, and listen to the calls. How many calls per customer do you get? What are the top reasons? What kind of emotion are customers bringing to the call?
  • What are competitive experiences like? While it’s not the best way to benchmark ease of use, it is helpful to see how others in your industry create their own user experiences. Sign up and try them out.

Above all, don’t conduct a survey or rely on a single person to get you the answers you seek. Self-reported behavior is notoriously unreliable, as people will tell you something is much easier than it typically is.

If you find you have a terrible user experience and a product dev team that either doesn’t care – or more typically lacks the skills to make it better – you may be fighting a losing battle with your marketing programs. My best advice is ratchet back spending on acquiring customers (since much of it is going to waste) until you can convince your management team to address the problems, and then go back to market. If your efforts are met with resistance, you may want to consider going to work for a different company that won’t make your job so difficult.