Stealing Users from the Competition with UX Design

by | Jul 22, 2015 | User Experience / UX, Words | 0 comments

A huge part of being a UX Designer is education. Whether it is educating stakeholders concerning deliverables, communicating a design or simply educating the organization on what UX is and is not, we spend a lot of time teaching and explaining. This becomes especially important when certain factions of the organization determine there is some problem with a certain aspect of the product. These movements vary in their origin. But, usually someone in power somewhere in the organization decides a product should do X or should have X. And, that’s where the ball starts rolling eventually finding its way to the UX team.
I recently went through a similar scenario with my own organization. Briefly, there was the notion that our product might have a level of complexity preventing new users from migrating to our brand. That is, we were interested in the design features or principles in our software that might serve as a barrier to a new user. The story is: The new user tries out your product or application, finds the learning curve too steep and instead goes back to their comfort zone (i.e. their original brand of choice). Now, it should be said that a user might try your product and leave simply because they are more comfortable with their brand of choice. Familiarity (even with a less usable product) is often difficult to contend with if you are attempting to steal market share. However, often users revert back to their previously used products for various reason – most notably, the new product doesn’t provide significant benefits or features over their brand of choice.
It is quite possible to steal customers from your competition and gain market share through good design. But, the first item I would like to address is the idea that there are specific usability issues that would prevent a new user from migrating to your product. Let me reword this so it is clear. There are very few usability issues that are solely specific to new users. That is the misunderstanding I identified in my organization. They dubbed these problems “Migration Issues,” but mostly they are really just usability issues that both new and experienced users must contend with. The difference between these user groups (new vs. experienced) is prominently one of familiarity as I mention above. Personality types, determination, tolerance for technology and the value of the product as well as other variables, of course, play a role in a customer’s decision to use your product. But a new user and an experienced user will generally have the same usability issues and addressing those issues will conceivably satisfy all user types.
All of this is not to say there are not different needs between the expert and the novice. After all, the Novice Expert Ratio exists for a reason. And there are certainly pathways and tools you can give a new user that the expert might not need – tools that may enable the new user to breach the learning curve. But, you have understand the user’s journey, user types and basic usability principles. Let’s start with basic usability principles.
When defining usability, Jakob Nielsen outlines 5 basic qualifying components:

  • Learnability
  • Efficiency
  • Memorability
  • Errors
  • Satisfaction


The two we are most concerned with in relation to new users is Learnability and Memorability. Satisfaction would be a distant third, but more of a concern for all users – novice or expert. Learnability simply refers to the ability of a new user to learn a system or interface. I have worked in the life sciences and healthcare for the past decade. These systems are not easy. But, it doesn’t mean they can’t be and it doesn’t mean we cannot design for learning. Some organizations (and software platforms) attempt to address this by building robust help systems with search and filter functions. While I have seen some pretty good attempts over the years (not speaking to you Microsoft Office), these help systems are less likely to be used by a novice than and expert. And if they are not well designed in terms of their search and underlying taxonomies (speaking to you Microsoft), they will be used by no one. Help should be contextual. That is, give me the right information at the right time when I need it most. I spent years working on this very need in healthcare informatics. It requires an in-depth understanding of the user and pain points in their workflow when using your product. However, contextual help is the “low hanging fruit” in terms of providing higher learnability in a system. Tooltips, walk-through tutorials and coach marks are also easily implemented learning tools. The visual aspect of design can also induce learning (as well as memorability). I would highly recommend Interface Design for Learning: Design Strategies for Learning Experiences (Voices That Matter) by Dorian Peters for more on this topic. Essentially, you have to give a new user a starting point and walk them through the interface providing help along the way. But, you have to keep that content available for future use…which bring us to memorability.
Have you ever had to change the page numbers in Microsoft Word? For example, perhaps you have a document (like a thesis) requiring Roman Numerals in the front matter and regular pages throughout the rest of the document. But, there should be no numbers on the chapter heading pages and the subsequent pages must not skip a number. This is a common requirement for dissertations. It can be done. But it is hard to remember how to do if you don’t format dissertations as a profession. Another example: My Toyota Camry currently has the maintenance light on. It just needs an oil change, but since I use synthetic oil, I don’t change it as often as the chip in the car thinks I should. I have to look up how to turn that light off every time it comes on. These are examples of systems in which memorability is an issue. The Microsoft example is a little less common. But the Camry example occurs every 5,00 miles – just long enough (and a complicated enough process) for me to forget how to address it. Memorability is important for all users in a system. But I would argue it is more important for new users when learning a system. Once again, knowing the user and their pain points is key to identifying where you need to employ this technique. Latent help messages in a system can help, but are usually a workaround for poor usability. In the Camry example, it would be ideal to simply have a button to reset the maintenance light. In the Microsoft example, changing a set of page numbers in a section could be made simpler – perhaps just a right click function to apply a number to only a single page or the ability to select multiple pages and set a range of numbers.
Establishing good learnability and memorability are key aspects of grabbing users from another platform or making it easy for them to switch to your product. But, there are other aspects of users to consider. In About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design, Alan Cooper has a chapter covering this (Chapter 10, 4th Ed. “Optimizing for Intermediates”). In this chapter, Cooper and his co-authors delineate three levels of users in relation to experience – beginners, intermediates and experts. He indicates the distribution of these users follows the standard Bell Curve with intermediate users comprising the largest proportion. Most users remain in a state of “perpetual intermediacy” and if you think about your own behavior with applications, you’ll find this is generally true. I’m not an expert at using MS Word, but not a beginner either. I fall into a state of perpetual intermediacy with that product where I know it well enough to complete most of my daily tasks. Experts, on the other hand, are essentially power users who will want access to powerful features, shortcuts to many things and will often require the use of obscure features.


User Distribution

Cooper’s model of user distribution


The object with this model Cooper provides is to move the beginner, as quickly as possible, from a novice state to intermediacy. Consider this: No beginner wants to stay a beginner forever. You either gain a basic set of proficiencies with a product or you abandon it. If the learning curve is extremely high, many users will be unlikely to obtain that state of intermediacy, become frustrated and will be more likely to abandon the product.
So practically speaking, what aspects can a UX designer use in an interface to increase adoption or to make it easier for a user to switch to your product? Here are some tips:
Help – as mentioned above, tooltips, pop-outs that explain features, on-boarding tutorials and features of this nature are perhaps the best methods of increasing learnability. But, these features must be latent. That is, they should not get in the way on subsequent use, but should allow a user to access them again (or remain hidden until hovered over) should they need them. This is especially true of an application the user might not use daily or weekly. We are likely to forget how to do things, which is where memorability comes into play and how helps features can aid.
Menus – Cooper aptly notes beginners often use menus to develop familiarity with a system and what it accomplishes. Make sure your labels and menu items (as well as the action dialogs they invoke) are clear. Card sorting and sometimes search log analysis can help in informing designer as to what the user’s verbiage is.
Navigation and Menu Simplification – If you use Adobe products, you know what a complex menu-driven interface looks like. It’s an interface designed for an expert. Thus you should design your interface for an intermediate user. Hide navigation items that are rarely used – slim it down. This, of course, requires some metrics on how the system is used. So perhaps that is a first step. However, a streamlined interface will prevent overloading the user with options.
Degree of Dislocation – Cooper uses this phraseology to indicate how suddenly an interface changes. In short, if your interface changes significantly as the result of a command executed by the user, make sure this occurs later in the user manipulations and not in the outer layers of a system.
Irreversible Functions – an example would be restoring your phone to factory settings. Ensure these features are not easy to get to and afford forgiveness. There is nothing that will turn a new user away quicker than not allowing them to recover from a catastrophic error and making them feel stupid.
Transference – make it simple for a new user to transfer settings, connections or to translate new terminology. An example is how easy Apple makes it for you to switch to a Mac and get your files from an older PC to your new computer. Or, when Google+ came out, they helped you find your connections on Facebook. Translating terms can be a little trickier, but you can provide methods (cheat sheets) for users to understand the linguistics in a new interface depending on your application.
Adhering to these principles will not only satisfy new users and enable them to more quickly adopt your product, but will also satisfy your perpetual intermediates and often address issues expert users find annoying but workaround anyway. In the end, new users may require special tools to enable adoption, but generally speaking, a usability issue is still a usability issue and it is usually one that exists for all users regardless of experience.