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ISSUE 01 - Q1 2002

Competitive Usability
How usability will be the key differentiator of tomorrow's Internet

Many online services on the Internet are about to enter the third stage of market maturity, where the key competitive differentiator will be usability. While many existing services are going to face costly re-designs if they what to meet the demands of the third stage, new Web projects have the opportunity to overtake competitors by making usability top priority.

The Demand for Usable Web Services

The various forms of online services on the Internet evolve through four predictable stages of development, which are driven by ruthless shifts in user demands. E-business is about to enter the third stage of this evolution. It has moved from a time of simple corporate sites with general facts and information about the company, to a stage where customers demand a wide range of online services to add convenience, effectiveness, and profitability to their own business. In the next stage to come - the third stage of the e-business maturity - customers will place new demands. They will expect not only that companies provide online services, but also that such services will be simple to use. This change in demands is especially crucial in product maturity, and many do not outlive this transition. To succeed, vendors must be able to anticipate the future demands for usability and take measures against the pitfalls that lie ahead.

The Four Stages of Market Maturity

In the article "Market Maturity" the usability research company User Interface Engineering (UIE) explain how software products go through four stages of maturity. This product evolution is comparable to the life cycle of many products and services that are dependent on the market forces and is similar to the development we have seen on the Internet until now. Their four stages of software maturity can be summarized as in the table below.

 
"Many usability failures are based on a shortsighted focus on technology and the inability to anticipate the shifts in market maturity."
       
  Stage 1:
Introduction
Stage 2:
Extension
Stage 3:
Utilization
Stage 4:
Refinement
Key Differentiator Innovation Functionality Usability Price
Customer Behaviours Customers are eager to experience the new product and are tolerant of imperfections and usability problems Customers expect a fully operational product and will pick the one with the most features Customers will expect advanced features and pick the product that is most simple to use Customers will expect a flawless product and will pick the one at the lowest price
Focal Point of Development Making the product work Adding new features and fixing bugs Making the product easy to use Reducing cost of development and maintenance

In the first stage, when a product based on a radically new concept is introduced to the market, a small group of enthusiastic early adopters will be excited about its basic possibilities. They will be eager to espouse the product driven by curiosity and the prospect of being able to do things in ways that have never been possible before.

This first stage is short-lived. In the second stage, a wider range of people will realize the potentials of the new product. And for these people, the basic capabilities are insufficient. They don't buy out of mere curiosity and competitors quickly seize the opportunity to enter the market offering similar products with new extended features that makes the product more useful. At this stage functionality becomes the key differentiator, and customers will pick the product offering the most features. This places great pressure on vendors to extend the capabilities of their products. In the heat of competition, they often build new functionality on top of the existing product without giving any thought to the demands of the third phase, where customers will stipulate ease of use as top priority.

Market Maturity on the Internet

This resembles the situation that many companies, that are providing services on the Internet, are facing today. In order to take advantage of the digital economy, they have built up complex online solutions, where the focal point has been technical issues and the prime consideration to get it up and running as fast as possible. While the product might have been suitable for the target group at the time of release, the risk is that customers of the third stage will find it annoying and to hard to use, if no thought has been given to usability issues during the development process. These customers will not be content with the mere possibilities that the product provides, if the old ways of doing things are more convenient to them. The companies that have rushed to gain first-mover advantage without truly understanding the customer needs, will thereby be left with a product that requires a thorough and very costly redesign, if they don't want to damage the reputation of their company.

The Sluggish Acknowledgement of Usability

Usability is slowly but surely becoming acknowledged as an important factor in Web development. New companies dedicated to Web usability are popping up, and established Web agencies are setting up in-house usability departments. The experts are ready to throw themselves into the task. But on the face of it, most companies are still reluctant to spend time and money on usability and Web agency consultants don't quite get the new approach and carry on selling technology instead of full-fledged useful solutions. If usability issues are taken into account, it is often in the form of a last minute usability check, where only minor changes are possible within the time scale. Sticking to the usual course of action, new projects miss a unique opportunity to overtake their competitors, and deliver a superior online experience that is relevant and targeted to their clients.

Budget for Usability

Many usability failures are due to a short-sighted focus on technology and the inability to anticipate the shifts in market maturity. Making full-fledged usable Web solutions require budgeting for usability to enable committed participation of usability experts and continuous involvement of end-users throughout the development process. And there is a great financial advantage to this approach. It costs about ten times less to do it right the first time than being forced to redesign a failure. Fact is, that in the third stage it is more essential to design for use, than to be the first one out of the gate.

Text: Henrik Olsen

   

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