Does Usability Actually Sell Anything?

Recently my ClickZ colleague Sean Carton asked, “Are Usability Experts Any Use?” I’ve written before about the need to go beyond usability and focus on persuasive architecture. Nevertheless, Sean’s column struck a very public nerve. In recent threads on the I-Sales and I-Design lists, Jared Spool of User Interface Engineering (UIE) posted that he felt several people somewhat misrepresented his position about the value of design and usability:

I think I’ve been misunderstood…..

I did say that fonts were unimportant. But design is so much more than choosing fonts, especially on the Web….

How are the pages laid out? What information attracts the eyes? How is the site’s important content displayed in the hierarchy? Does the page design force users to go to search? (Search is bad — users only go to search when the design of the page has failed them.)

Jared compares with In usability tests, he says, “Gap’s site outperformed Newport News by a factor of 10!” The fonts used on both sites are similar, but the overall design is credited for Gap’s success.

Let me point to some numbers as well. I don’t have access to the exact traffic or revenue numbers, but let’s see what we can infer about each of the following Web sites’ results. According to Alexa, (#739) appears to have significantly more traffic and reach than (#2,702). In 2002, The New York Times published a comScore chart of the top 25 online retailers, ranked by revenue. Newport-News came in at number 16; is nowhere to be seen. (For a copy of the chart, email me.) If you had read Jared Spool’s post, you wouldn’t have guessed that.

In the NYT article, a couple Newport News employees gave a reasonable explanation of how it made the list:

When asked how the company’s online sales have surged ahead of other higher profile apparel e-tailers, like Lands’ End, J. Crew and Eddie Bauer, Ms. Madonna suggested it was partly because the company takes a different approach to presenting its merchandise.

Rather than classifying merchandise entirely by category, Newport News relies heavily on presenting goods within the context of fashion themes and trends. For instance, following one of the trends dictated by the fashion cognoscenti, the site features a Shades of Summer display that includes a wide variety of clothes that have nothing in common but the brightness of their colors.

That approach, Mr. Ittner said, appeals more to impulse shoppers. “And the fashion business is an impulse business,” he said. “People don’t just wake up and say, ‘I need a red short-sleeve dress.'”

When you look at the world through usability lenses, you miss some of the other, more critical business issues. Jared says:

We measure sales to users who have already decided to purchase products on the site. For users who know what they want, the site should sell it easily. Gap customers could buy 66.0% of what they came for, while Newport News customers could only manage to find and purchase 6.3% of what they wanted. The big difference? Design.

Obviously, Newport News knows how to design for its business, market, and customers quite well. The bottom line is always the bottom line. Nevertheless, Jared’s study shows the need for “findability” for customers who know what they want (one of the three types of Web site visitors). Possibly, Newport News could benefit from improving findability as well.

In the early days of the new economy, Web sites didn’t work. Site owners didn’t spend time fixing business models and marketing plans. They took little time caring about customer relationships or understanding what prospects wanted. They took less time to contemplate and create content and images that were persuasive and instilled desire. They hired designers and programmers and hoped money would trickle in faster than it poured out. When the party was over, they hired usability experts to fix the disasters their techies created and still filed Chapter 11.

Usability experts observe a few people in laboratories (not their normal environment) but turn their noses up at Web analytics that record what large, statistically valid samples actually do. Asking people what they will do is futile; they don’t really know (e.g., they say that they want to eat healthy but “supersize” their value meals). Observing people in a lab is less than optimal, since those are not true market conditions. Observing what people do under real market conditions where the real world distracts and interacts with them is a much more powerful method. For instance, I’ve tested fonts with real offers and real audiences.

Fonts rarely affect conversion rates. However, we’ve conducted simultaneous, large-sample A/B splits on email and Web site copy and found significant change in conversion based on font size and/or style. With one client, we found changing a font style from Arial to Comic Sans in an HTML email increased conversion by almost 30 percent.

Style rarely matters, but increasing font size is more likely to improve conversion. The font style should be congruent with the message. In the above example, the message tone was conversational and informal. Comic Sans fit the mood we were trying to create.

Jared summarizes his thoughts as follows:

  • Fonts on the Web: unimportant
  • Design: important
  • Persuasive design: critically important

I would summarize mine this way:

  • Sock puppets: unimportant
  • Usability: important
  • Good programming: necessary
  • Persuasive copy and design: critical
  • Business objectives balanced with customer needs: invaluable
  • Customer satisfaction and profit: priceless

Some great studies come from usability labs, in particular Jared’s UIE, whose research I use often. He does great work. But to his usability hammer, every problem looks like a usability nail. I look at the same data and reach different conclusions. That does not make either of us wrong. The world is not binary. Ignore either of our conclusions, and your business could suffer.

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