In a Recession Cut Back on Usability. NOT!

User experience is not the place for budget cuts in a recession

Why are usability and user experience some of the first areas to get axed when times get tough?

When times are good, companies work to stand out, build better products and make customers happy. When times are bad, companies SHOULD work to stand out, build better products and make customers happy. But a lot of companies don’t, they cut back across the board or on “extras” like user research and good design.

But when times are tight, and you have to work harder and harder for the sale, that’s when you NEED to do things that make you different, noteworthy and memorable. Giving your customers a great experience with your product or web site is still one of the easiest and most cost effective ways to stand out from the crowd.

Here are a couple reasons to continue investing in user experience and usability and a few ideas for how to do it on a recession-sized budget.

Usability is Cost Effective

When sales are down you advertise.

When ads work, you get a nice spike in sales, and hopefully people become repeat customers recommending your site or product to others.

Simple. Obvious. Tried and true.

BUT is that return visit or recommendation going to happen if they found your product or site hard to use? Did all that money spent on the ad campaign pay off? For how long?
On the other hand, usability improvements are relatively inexpensive, and whatever improvements you make will last.

The Neilson Norman Group recently updated their research on Usability ROI, and found that key performance indicators improve by 83% on average after strategic usability improvements are made. In another study they found that a mid-sized company can get $4.5 million in productivity savings by taking their intranet site’s usability from poor to good at a cost of about $1 million for the project.

350% ROI. Not bad.

Now what about customer support sites? You know what I mean, the online resources customers use to find the information they need instead of calling customer support; things like FAQs, forums support pages etc. If you improved the quality and findability of that information – how much could you save in support costs?

Time after time research shows that investing in usability is a solid and relatively inexpensive investment.

In This Economy Your Customers Are More Careful with Their Money

Gone (for now) are the days of large impulse purchases. People are going to do their research and they expect more for their money. Think of it this way, people are looking for the best experience they can get.

At the same time people are shopping on line more and more. Why not? They can compare prices, check out reviews and make a purchase with a few clicks. No need to worrying about the price of gas this week.

An online survey conducted by Harris Interactive for Tealeaf found that 89% of respondents had problems making an online purchase in the last year. Almost half of those people said that when they had problems making a purchase they usually gave up and went to an online competitor.

On top of that, 42% of the people who had experienced problems said they were unlikely to try to use the problematic site again.

‘nuff said.

Use Usability to Stay Ahead of Your Competition

Did you notice the definition in the photo above? The key word is temporary. The recession will end.

There is a good chance your competition is undergoing the same cutbacks you are right now. Do you want to come out of the recession on par with your them, or would you prefer to be in a  stronger position? Put your money into fewer key projects, and make sure you nail the experience.

Apple worked on iTunes and the iPod during the last recession . . .

Improving User Experience While Budgets Shrink

Maybe you’ve agreed with me all along, or maybe I’ve convinced you that you should invest in usability; but that doesn’t change the budget cuts and hiring freeze you are faced with.

The large design agencies are expensive. But smaller boutiques and independent consultants are much more reasonable.

And don’t forget all the people who have been laid-off recently. (And sadly a lot of interaction designers, usability experts and user experience architects have been laid-off lately.) There’s a pretty good chance you can find someone with a lot of talent, and a fresh perspective who is interested in a short term contract – and maybe a great candidate for a permanent position when your hiring freeze is lifted. I bet you can find someone motivated to help you make your case for usability.

Don’t forget to look inside your company. Do you have anyone in QA, a tech writer, or maybe a product manager who is interested in usability? Find a consultant who is willing to train your people while designing, facilitating and analyzing results of a usability test. Using current staff to do some of the work should reduce the cost of the consultant AND you may have the beginning of a new user advocate in your company who can take on more and more usability tasks in the future.

Convinced?

If you don’t have a user experience strategy, here are a few tried and true resources and interesting articles to help build your case for investing now.

Jakob Nielsen’s website

Usability Professionals Association resources

Business Week Article: 10 Worst Innovation Mistakes In a Recession

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