The key benefits of usability are:

  • Higher revenues through increased sales
  • Increased user efficiency
  • Reduced development costs
  • Reduced support costs

Higher revenues through increased sales

Because usability initiatives focus on customer goals, they increase both online and offline sales.

Usability boosts online sales in the following ways.

  • Usability initiatives like contextual inquiry and usability testing help identify the information customers need to complete the sale — as well as potential sales obstacles like shipping costs and ease of product returns. Usability research firm User Interface Engineering found that when consumers were given money to shop at well-known sites, 70% of their shopping attempts ended in failure. Because of poor site design, consumers just couldn't find what they were looking for.
  • In contrast, usability techniques like card sorting help design an intuitive navigation system. This means customers can find the products that they want to buy, increasing sales.
  • By making it easy for customers to achieve their goals, customers will return and buy from you again. According to Forrester Research, 42% of US Web buying consumers made their most recent online purchase because of a previous good experience with the retailer. A focus on customer goals will also identify the right products to offer for cross-selling, further increasing sales.
  • By providing a great user experience, customers are more likely to recommend the site to other people - and they are less likely to complain. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, once said: "If you have an unhappy customer on the Internet, he doesn't tell his six friends, he tells his 6,000 friends". (Last month, Bezos's prediction was put to the test when a dissatisfied student launched a Facebook group called "Stop the Great HSBC Graduate Rip-off!". The group quickly grew to over 5,000 members and they succeeded in forcing HSBC to reverse its decision to axe interest-free graduate overdrafts).

If you make physical products or sell a service, usability boosts offline sales too.

  • As consumers begin to demand iPod-simplicity in all of the technology they use, a usable product is easier to demonstrate and sell, which provides you with a competitive edge.
  • Once you get a reputation for usable products, customers become loyal. Loyal customers generate repeat business, demonstrate immunity to the competition, provide higher margins and are less price sensitive.
  • When consumer groups or industry magazines review your product, usability is now one of their standard evaluation categories. Focussing on usability during development ensures that this is at least one area where your product will shine.

Increased user efficiency

People use products and web sites to achieve a goal and then to get on with their life. Few people want to spend their day navigating your web site for buried content. Nowhere is this more relevant than with company intranets. Jakob Nielsen has estimated that improving intranet usability would save the world economy $1.3 trillion per year.

Companies benefit from easier to use systems, like intranets, in the following ways.

  • By helping employees work faster, they become more productive. The financial benefit of this should not be underestimated. For example, by reducing the time spent choosing the right option from your company's Intranet home page by just 1 minute per day, a typical company with 5,000 employees could achieve £0.25m year in efficiency savings. (Calculated assuming a weighted hourly salary cost of £15 and assuming that the average employee works 200 days per year).
  • A focus on usability means that new recruits will quickly learn how to carry out common tasks and all employees will learn how to use new functions more quickly. Further savings arise from the fact that novices will not have to bother experienced staff for assistance when using the system.
  • An Intranet tailored to the way employees work will reduce the number of errors made, for example when entering data in forms. This means fewer errors will need to be corrected later.
"The world is divided into two kinds of people: those who spend a great deal of time trying to save money, and those who spend a great deal of money trying to save time." — Peter Cochrane.

This aphorism illustrates that improved efficiency also benefits e-commerce sites and physical products.

  • By providing a speedy sign in process and storing address, shipping and credit card details, you make it easy for customers to purchase from you again — even when customers can get it cheaper elsewhere. Amazon appreciated this a decade ago when they decided to patent their one-click purchase process and they have since vigorously defended their patent.
  • Improving efficiency also improves usage. For example, human factors firm HFI used usability methods to improve a recruitment web site for civil servants and made it 12 times faster to find a job. This redesign also boosted the percentage of people that could successfully find a job from 30% to 100%.
  • Products that are quick to learn require less instruction, reducing customers' cost of ownership and their investment in training.

Reduced development costs

With any new product or web site, development costs are always responsible for the biggest slice of the cake. Usability initiatives reduce development costs considerably, because:

  • Focussing on what users want to do, rather than designing a product that does everything for everyone, helps you avoid featuritis. This means you spend time coding only those features that will be used.
  • Involving users early in the design process helps you detect and fix usability problems early in design. Once a problem has become hard-coded, changes can cost 60-100 times as much as in the early phases of development, so it makes sense to trap these problems early.
  • Creating testable user experience requirements ensures that the development efforts are targeted on business critical metrics like conversion rate, rather than soft goals like "update the look-and-feel" or "make the site simpler."
  • Usability testing identifies the flaws in a product, which can then be fixed prior to release, reducing the risk of product failure.
  • An iterative design approach (design-test-redesign-retest) helps you get it "right first time" and so avoids the need to re-work the design after release. 80% of software re-writes are due to the fact that important functionality was missed the first time.
  • Having data that shows how real users interact with the product means that you can manage and reduce risk, for example by helping you prioritise features.

Reduced support costs

Companies benefit from reduced support and maintenance costs in the following ways:

  • A product or web site that is intuitive to use means that documentation can be eliminated or at least minimised.
  • Usability testing will flush out the uncertainties customers have about a product, which can then be addressed in the page content (for a web site) or the packaging (for a product). Providing a fix for these problems means that customers will not have to call or email customer support with simple questions about the product.
  • A product that is simple to set up is less likely to be returned. For example, research shows that over 60% of mobile phones returned as faulty turn out to be working perfectly — the returns are wholly due to usability problems with the handsets. (This costs the mobile industry in the UK over £54m per annum).

How to apply this to your own situation

Although we don't recommend you use cost-benefit arguments as your only method of persuading managers about usability they nevertheless have their place. Cherry-pick the items from this article that are most relevant to your situation. Then use them to create a business case for usability within your own company. Use it as a framework for an internal presentation or to persuade your boss that an investment in usability makes business sense.

About the author

David Travis

Dr. David Travis (@userfocus on Twitter) is a User Experience Strategist. He has worked in the fields of human factors, usability and user experience since 1989 and has published two books on usability. David helps both large firms and start ups connect with their customers and bring business ideas to market. If you like his articles, why not join the thousands of other people taking his free online user experience course?

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This article is tagged benefits, strategy, roi, selling usability.

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David Travis Dr. David Travis (@userfocus) has been carrying out ethnographic field research and running product usability tests since 1989. He has published three books on user experience including Think Like a UX Researcher.

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