Are You Designing for Usability or Sales?, Part 1

  |  January 9, 2004   |  Comments

Usability's important, but it's not essential to a commercial Web site's success. Part 1 of a series.

A handful of people misunderstood my thoughts about usability when I recently asked, "Does Usability Actually Sell Anything?" I'm a big advocate of usability as a tactic. In fact, I've written about usability countless times in this column and my company's newsletter. We certainly don't want to place obstacles in front of users. However, for the last three years, I've urged people to go beyond usability.

Usability is related to the individual's subjective experience. The same 64-ounce glass mug I love to drink from is a disaster waiting to happen for my two-year-old daughter. Is the mug usable? Yes, for me. Not for her.

The general problem I have with usability as a discipline is its focus on use, not the user. Many usability professionals have now moved their core philosophy some and appear to focus on "user-centered design" (UCD). Usability as a discipline, however, can trace its roots back to Frederick Winslow Taylor, the father of scientific management and industrial production.

Usability focuses on improving the tools we use and compensated users for participating in studies, thus providing the intrinsic motivation to help management create more efficient systems. Usability experts gather a handful of "average users" and watch as they engage with the tool in question. Hopefully the user research they conduct is statistically significant.

Market conditions determine what software programs we must figure out how to use (is Windows truly the most usable operating system?); tools and equipment we need at work are similar. But when users land on your Web site, they bring their own needs, wants, perspectives, and motivations. They're volunteers on your site and choose whether they'll continue interacting with your site. If they feel you don't understand them, if they can't figure out what to do, or if you're just not providing the value they want offered, they're one click away from your competitor's Web site.

Users evaluate the level of empathy you display for their wants, needs, and desires. Usability is based on the physiological and psychological principle that only an individual's perception can explain. If users perceive you as empathetic, they'll continue to navigate your site despite the usability faults they experience.

Am I saying we shouldn't remove the faults? Of course not! However, your site being usable can't overcome an inability to meet the motivations and desires of users.

So how do we meet the needs of a diverse group of individuals? After all, as psychologist David Keirsey explains in his authoritative book "Please Understand Me":

If I do not want what you want, please try not to tell me that my want is wrong. Or if I believe other than you, at least pause before you correct my view.... If you will allow me any of my own wants, or emotions, or beliefs, or actions, then you open yourself, so that some day these ways of mine might not seem so wrong, and might finally appear to you as right -- for me.... And in understanding me you might come to prize my differences from you, and, far from seeking to change me, preserve and even nurture those differences.

In 1999, software designer and consultant Alan Cooper brilliantly introduced the concept of designing software with personas. This involves designers putting themselves in their users' shoes, imagining different personas that might be using the software. Then they design based on different personas' potential mindsets.

This is an excellent example of UCD. Web site design has seen quite a bit of interest in the last year or so. Cooper writes in his book "The Inmates Are Running the Asylum":

Marketing professionals will be instantly familiar with the process of persona development, as it is very similar to what they do in the market definition phase. The main difference between marketing personas and design personas is that the former are based on demographics and distribution channels, whereas the latter are based purely on users. The two are not the same, and don't serve the same purpose. The marketing personas shed light on the sales process, whereas the design personas shed light on the development process.

So many of the UCD companies that have sprung up created design personas to use during their development process. Don't let the medium get in the way of the message. A commercial Web site (one in which a business needs to meet ROI objectives and have visitors take some sort of desired action) is more a persuasive and interactive dialogue. It's akin to the visitor having a conversation with your Web site, which acts as a digital salesperson.

Salespeople instinctively adapt their sales presentations to fit customer preferences. Reading the customer's facial expressions and body language and listening beyond the customer's questions to interpret tone of voice, the salesperson "sells" each customer in whatever way that customer prefers to be sold.

A digital salesperson correctly reads the customer's interests, then adapts the Web site's presentation accordingly. Like its human counterpart, the digital salesperson will adjust and conform the flow of information to suit the needs and preferences of each individual. Each click on a hyperlink or query in a search engine is a question your visitor needs answered. You present the information in a way visitors want.

The digital salesperson is concerned with addressing the marketing persona Cooper describes as shedding light on the sales process. Are you designing your Web site with the sales process or just the development process in mind?

Next week, I'll explain the differences between the design and marketing personas in greater detail.

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Bryan Eisenberg

Bryan Eisenberg is co-founder and chief marketing officer (CMO) of IdealSpot. He is co-author of the Wall Street Journal, Amazon, BusinessWeek, and New York Times best-selling books Call to Action, Waiting For Your Cat to Bark?, and Always Be Testing, and Buyer Legends. Bryan is a keynote speaker and has keynoted conferences globally such as Gultaggen,, Direct Marketing Association, MarketingSherpa, Econsultancy, Webcom, the Canadian Marketing Association, and others for the past 10 years. Bryan was named a winner of the Marketing Edge's Rising Stars Awards, recognized by eConsultancy members as one of the top 10 User Experience Gurus, selected as one of the inaugural iMedia Top 25 Marketers, and has been recognized as most influential in PPC, Social Selling, OmniChannel Retail. Bryan serves as an advisory board member of several venture capital backed companies such as Sightly, UserTesting, Monetate, ChatID, Nomi, and BazaarVoice. He works with his co-author and brother Jeffrey Eisenberg. You can find them at

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