7: Evolving, Encouraging, and Protecting User Experience

The measure of success for the online channel is not that the site operates well, but that it attracts a large and stable audience. In terms of winning customers, the field of engagement is user experience. In most industries, there is already a lot of competition, and if a new idea succeeds, it will attract other firms to enter the market, who will lure customers away from established companies, most often by providing a better customer experience. As such, dominance in customer experience is far more critical to competitive posture and long-run organizational success than operational excellence, or any other factor.

Successful User Experience

From the user's perspective, a successful user experience delivers benefits to the user, with less difficulty (in terms of effort and emotional investment) than any alternative method for achieving the same benefits. The degree to which the site will succeed in attracting and retaining an audience depends entirely on those factors.

From the operator's perspective, a successful site is one that attracts and retains s sufficient audience, and gains from their interaction a level of revenue that will cover the costs of development and operation, plus provide a margin of profit.

Fundamentally, it is that simple: if the firm cannot identify the benefits to the user, make a case for being easier than alternatives, and demonstrate profitability, its Web site operation will fail.

Cognitive Work

User experience has less to do with technology than it does with cognition: the behavior of the users, which derives from their cognitive faculties. The technology in question is merely a channel through which behavior is either changed or reinforced. Knowledge of cognitive and behavioral psychology is largely lacking in the business world, even in disciplines to which it would seem to be most appropriate: design and marketing.

Cognition is the same regardless of channel: the perceptions and motivations that lead a person to act in a specific way are present in the person, not the device. The device is merely an enabler. That is: a person is motivated to undertake an action to satisfy a desire - and whether this is done on the Web, via a mobile device, or in a physical location is entirely incidental.

User Experience as Intellectual Property

As user experience has become a method of gaining competitive advantage, companies have sought to prevent competitors from imitating their user experience by means of intellectual property laws. (EN: To date, this has met with little success, and legal defense of processes is tenuous.)

Copyrights, trademarks, and patents cover certain elements of brand - primarily, the text and images presented by one company can be protected from infringement by others. But user experience remains too ephemeral a notion to have gained much legal protection.

The author refers to amazon.com as an example of a company that patented a business process (one-click ordering) as a suggestion this may change. (EN: However, their patent was refused outside the US, has been partially invalidated domestically, and in the end is toothless. Other companies can offer one-click ordering, so long as they call it by a different name).

The author also mentions that companies that go out of business are often able to include their patented business processes as a fire-sale asset (EN: But again, this is misleading. What buyers seek to obtain by such purchases is not the "right" to use a process, but merely the code and documentation that tells them how to do it, so they are essentially saving the cost of reverse-engineering)

As for how a firm can defend its user experience, the author's advice is to get a good IP attorney who can consult and advice on matters of patent protection.

Cultural Changes in the Organization

Delivering on the customer experience requires the cultural support of an entire organization. A lone user experience expert (or even a department of them) cannot "win" in an environment where this-quarter sales and operational cost-cutting are given greater weight than the customer's long-term satisfaction.

In companies that produce exceptional user experiences, the senior management "gets" the value of experience, and it pervades the values that underlie the organizational culture. However, in companies where user experience is only vaguely understood, it requires considerable negotiation and persuasion to get past opposition and conflicting interests.

Financial Measures of the User-Experience Strategy

The optimum formula for profitability is to deliver the best user experience for the least capital investment. There is little value to the company in providing "perks" to customers that do not result in increased marginal revenue.

(EN: I can't agree here. Doing as little as possible to get money out of a customer is short-sighted. It is operationally efficient, but does not foster customer loyalty. Also, setting a low goal leaves a company in a vulnerable position: the moment a competitor does a little more, customers leave, and it's very hard to win them back - the original firm must not merely meet the level of service that drew the customer away, but exceed it in sufficient measure to lure customers back, and probably apologize profusely for having short-changed them before.)

The cell-phone market is an example of an industry where customers set their expectations fairly low, such that a company can provide "good enough" coverage. Companies do not provide flawless coast-to-coast coverage, and have no incentive to do so, as customers are accustomed to outages and locations where coverage is poor or unavailable.

(EN: to follow up on the earlier notion: the first company that provides 100% coverage with 100% uptime will win this market. Even when competitors scramble to match the level of service, the majority customers who have left them will not switch back immediately. And the costs saved of being merely "good enough" will be far outweighed by the revenue lost to the first-mover who sets a higher standard of service.)

It's also noted that providing "too good" of an experience can be costly. For example, a site that charges a flat fee for access incurs greater expense with no additional income for users that spend a lot of time on the site. In this way, providing a better experience that encourages customers to spend more time at the site is harmful to the bottom line, and the most active customers are consequently the least profitable. So the target is to provide an experience that's just good enough to keep users from cancelling the service, but not so good they use it often.

(EN: The math works, and is common in many industries where all-you-can-eat service is provided at a flat price. However, it's a dangerous game of brinksmanship, and the "sweet spot" is difficult to achieve. And again, you cannot ignore that a lost customer isn't easily replaced, and that an enthusiastic customer spurned tends to make a lot of noise that will discourage others from doing business with you.)