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The Benefits of Good Design

You're going to encounter skeptics when it comes to communicating the benefits of good design. For example, you may have had the following conversation with your software development team once or dozens of times before:

  • You: "We need usability testing to make sure that our software is not only usable, but easy to use."
  • Developers: "But the software is so easy to use—we don't need usability testing!"

A rejoinder to this argument can be hard to come by, because the developers are correct—if the developers are the only ones using the product.

Of course, other people outside your company will pay money to use your software, and if the users disagree with your developers, your company isn't only going to be deficient in the financial space, but it will also be deficient in the idea space. That is, your company will gain the perception that it doesn't meet the needs of users, and that perception can be hard to overcome.

Other people in your company may just shrug and say "so what?" in response to your request for usability testing. Without something tangible to present to other people, those people can't wrap their heads around what you're trying to convey. So what will you tell them?

You should start your business case by discussing with the company the benefits of good design (Mayhew and Tremaine, 2005). Good usability design and testing positively affect four key business areas:

  • Production costs
  • Customer support costs
  • Customer productivity
  • Customer retention

Long-Term Production Costs

Good design helps your company reduce both your short-term and long-term production costs.

Lower Short-Term Costs

The promise of popular "desktop" GUI interfaces, such as Windows and Mac OS, became popular in the 1990s. The promise was that, because users would now be using a standard interface, people would be able to use any software at all. The reality is much more complicated. The desktop GUI interface didn't solve an old problem: Application software usually brings new tasks and new ways of doing tasks along with it, and users need to know how to perform those tasks efficiently.

You will save money in production costs by focusing your production teams as early in the development process as possible on updates to existing products as well as new products. If your sales and marketing teams learn from users about faults in the product that are attributed to faults in the user design, your entire company will have to devote a great deal of time, effort, and perhaps money to fix the problems. The results could be that your company's reputation suffers, your product's reputation suffers, and any other products under development are delayed because your production team has to devote its time to fixing the existing product.

Lower Long-Term Costs

Spend less money on fixing things that users have found unacceptable, and spend more time including improvements to help make the product and your customers' lives even better. You will also take what you learned from user interface design on your current project and apply it to other projects, thus making the products produced by those projects better for your users. Better products positively affect your company's bottom line.

Lower Customer Support Costs

Customer support costs account for as much as 60 percent of a high-tech company's total costs. If users find the user interface easy to use, they will likely not need to contact customer support. Without guidance afforded by good user interface design, users will use their own judgments, for better or worse, to get something to work the way they feel it should. That guidance must also be in front of users so they cannot ignore it, because there is no guarantee that users will read the documentation that comes with the software or hardware.

For example, there are stories of users who broke CD-ROM drive trays when they used the trays as cup holders. These users used the trays as cup holders because the manufacturers didn't tell them up front that the trays weren't cup holders, not even adding a sticker on the drive tray stating something like, "Not a cup holder." Such a sticker may have saved a lot of people money and grief.

If your product is well designed, your users will rely on online help and training materials less often and be more productive because they will find your product easy to use. They won't encounter or make as many errors, but if they do make errors, good documentation and online help will get them back on their feet more quickly.

Good product design lowers training costs. Certain products are complicated and require more training, but good interface design can reduce the amount of unnecessary training that your company needs to provide. For example, if your software is easy enough to use that you can have online training that anyone can access from your company's Web site, you will save the time and money necessary to have one of your employees train users at your facility or another facility. If you want to have in-person training, a well-designed product will ensure that you minimize the number of days you train people so that users can become more productive more quickly.

Greater Customer Retention

Documentation is the first line of support for most customers, and customers usually use it to look for the answer to a problem they're having. The inevitable result of poor or nonexistent documentation is that more people try calling the customer support lines for help. The company tries to mitigate the costs of hiring and training customer support staff by charging for those calls.

Users, who don't want to pay for those calls if they don't have to, usually search the Internet to get answers instead. Some users visit the company Web site for those answers. Many companies not only have lists of frequently asked questions (known popularly by the acronym FAQs), but also have online forums to ask and answer questions. Also, there are often online forums and mailing lists not affiliated with the company that users may consult with. However, the users may still not have the answers they need, so they have two choices: pay and hope they get the information they need, or give up. The users will either call your customer support line and won't be happy about it, or they'll decide that your competitor's product is a better solution.

Any extra time that the users put into solving the problem reinforces negative feelings about your company. In the worst-case scenario, poor design can result in damage to users' computers or data and cause them to seek reimbursement from your company for those damages. If you have aggressive competitors, this isn't good news for you or your team. A popular aphorism in the business world is that it costs about 10 times more to acquire a new customer than it does to retain one.

Therefore, good design not only results in less user frustration, but it also results in more positive reinforcements of your company. Happier customers not only means that you keep the customers you have, but it also increases the chances that you will be able to attract new customers through testimonials and word of mouth, the latter of which remains the most effective marketing method.

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