Thanks to my friend Jacob Gube, I had the pleasure to have my latest blog post published on Six Revisions: Why It’s So Hard to Make Usability Sexy
I’ve published a new post as a guest blogger on The Virtual Assistant Genie Blog: The Importance of Time Tracking for Startups
I’ve published a new post as a guest blogger on The Tech Panda: Top 5 Online Courses for Startups
I’ve published a new post as a guest blogger on Search Engine Lead: Top 10 Usability Experts to Follow on Twitter
I’ve published a new post as a guest blogger on I2Mag: Top 5 Apps To Manage Your Personal Finance
I’ve published a new post as a guest-blogger on PJ Themes: Top 5 Marketing Extensions For Joomla.
I really think that to become a better software designer (even if “UX Designer” – or something fancy like that – is not your job description) everything starts from a simple notion: well-designed software is considerate and helpful.
Just think about it: software exists to help us humans, lifting from us the weight of repetitive or computationally expensive tasks; and, usually, even badly-designed software is capable of carrying out complex tasks, and perform extremely difficult operations in small time. So, “helpful” usually isn’t a problem.
But think about “considerate”. Just try to imagine the software you use the most during your daily routine as a human assistant. How would you describe him (or her), if you were asked about his personality? Would you picture him as a well-behaved, considerate and smart young man, or words like “dumb, presumptuous and bipolar dumb-ass” would come to mind?
You will find that linking human traits with inanimate things is something very easy to do when you interact with them: and well, interaction is the essence of software.
So it’s clear: the quality of user experience is determined by software’s “personality” too. How much? It depends on the user and on the interactions required by the software (how many times it requires your attention, for how long you use it, how are its functions important for your goals…). Surely, working with an insolent and witty software doesn’t make you happy or productive: it frustrates you. And user’s frustration is the worst enemy of good software design.
Hence, this is the best advice anyone who cares about user experience in software design can give to his fellows designers, software architects, engineers or whatever:
Give your software the gift of a considerate, helpful and smart personality.
So you startupped your online business, providing your customers with a better-quality, or cheaper, or simply with an original product that your competition isn’t able to match right now. You went through the high waves of product definition, you won your company or family support, you spent endless nights on a rough business plan.
Now, it’s time to get you some real customers.
Sources of online customers
When you aim to engage customers for an online venture, the web itself is often the sole ground where you should move. And, on the web, customers can come to your website mostly from three possible sources: referrals, organic search and paid ads.
Gaining referrals is a very hard marketing and PR job, which often requires specific skills and always a lot of dedicated time. It’s essential for every growing business, but it pays off in the long run (exception: viral products or services).
Organic search surely is the most satisfactory and preferable source of website visitors, because it means being one of the top results in relevant searches about the products or services you offer (something you would surely be proud of). But getting there is extremely difficult, as it implicates a thorough work on SEF (making your website very appealing and relevant to search engines) and on backlink construction (making your website linked to from popular or relevant sites). This process requires knowledge (about SEO, web design and marketing), or money (to hire a SEO specialist) and, in both cases, time (results start showing up after 2/3 months).
The problem with this is: if you don’t have already validated your business model, 2/3 months lost on the wrong track could mean FAIL.
Test as you wish in the paid ads world
Paid ads, like Google Adwords, are a lean way to test your business model right away with a fixed cost, letting you focus on the most important side of your job: enhancing your product or services, and improving your website conversion rate.
You can choose a daily budget, your target keywords, your target market, and try a couple of ad lines out. Provided that you make a good job on your choices, you’ll be dealing with potential customers in a few hours.
That’s great! But POTENTIAL customers don’t mean SURE bucks!
There are a few secrets that I learnt by startupping several web-based services and products using Google Adwords. Here they are.
Choose the right targets
The first thing to take into account is that, although the whole world can be your market, it’s sometimes unnecessary and wasteful to target it all. Take into account local primary languages, and avoid wasting money for ads on countries where your website language is not native (even if it’s English); always think in terms of conversion rates, and target your ads where you think that your product or service could be better accepted.
Pick specific long-tail low-cost keywords
As you gain experience with Google Adwords, you’ll notice that the most common keywords (the ones that come to mind when thinking about your product or service category) are often very expensive. The good news is that customers use common or general keywords (for example, “running shoes”) early during their online search (in a sort of “discovery-mode”, then narrowing their search using additional and specific keywords (for example, “Adidas A234 Running buy online”) when they feel more ready to buy. You’ll see that bidding against these long and specific keywords (called “long tail keywords”) is much cheaper and gets to you visitors that are more committed.
Work for high-conversion rates
Using Google Adwords you can easily get visitors (hopeful already committed to buying a product or a service similar to yours) to your website. Sure, you pay for them, but you know exactly how much each of them costs. This should drive you to the most important part of your job at this phase: getting to know your visitors, understanding their needs and, if these match with what you have to offer, push your conversion rates through the roof. To do this, you need to monitor your visitors’ behavior (learn everything you can about Google Analytics and conversion monitoring in Google Adwords), and make their stay on your website as smooth and productive as possible.
You should continuously monitor your Google Adwords data, to detect which ads, keywords and targets give you the most, dropping everything that lowers your conversion rate.
A great model for jump-starting online businesses
Using Google Adwords is a great way to bootstrap your online business, giving you space to test your business model at a fixed cost and with great monitoring tools. But remember: when your business starts working, and you become sure of your model, it’s important to complete your marketing guns with medium and long term strategies, like SEO and web marketing. If you don’t do this, your growth will hit a flat line pretty soon.
Paper prototyping is an essential step for every design process I start. On the internet you can find a remarkable number of kits to help you work better, such as the precious notepads made by UXPin, that go from a simple smartphone/web browser wireframe to a series of ready-to-use printed elements that you can position on your paper prototype.
When paper prototyping, I usually prefer to take all the advantages that paper, pencil and rubber can give to me, that’s why I leave pre-rendered elements for the digital mockups phase.
I find sneakpeekit sketch sheets extremely useful for paper prototyping: they are minimal tablet/smartphone or web mockups, with space for notes and project details. You can choose among a “quick sketch” version (more than one mockup per page, useful for fast drawing) and a “detailed sketch” version (with grids). sneakpeekit sketch sheets are free to download.
One of the biggest questions you ask yourself while reading “The Design of Everyday Things”, by Don Norman, is how the heck are bad design and abysmal usability still so widespread when the design community seems so confident and uniform about the modern theories and processes of industrial and software design.
I ask myself this question at least a couple of times every day, and what really bugs me is that most of my usability indignation is brought about by the very products I have bought. Yep, guilty as charged.
Surely I don’t miss those opportunities to remind myself to be more careful when I replace my TV, or my office telephone system (which is one of the instruments that really seems designed by mad scientists). But what does it really mean to be more careful when deciding which product to buy?
Spotting usability is difficult
Imagine yourself strolling along the shelves of an electronics store, looking for a new TV for your living room. You are concerned with good design and usability, and you want to impress your friends with the easiest-to-use-yet-most-complete TV set EVER.
You look around, and every TV available on the shelves is on, with big signs declaring their prices and an attached one-page specs sheet for each one, which – the geeky clerk tells you – is great because allows you to COMPARE them.
Comparing them is thus simple, just look at the specs! Look! With just $100 more you can get a TV that lets you enjoy 5 movies at the same time, splitting the video! How can you miss that bargain?
Luckily, you quickly come to your senses (and your principles), and you say to the clerk: “No, I want something that is actually usable”. He looks at you, with those big lost eyes of him, and stutters: “Err… That, that one has an Easy To Use sticker on its screen… Let’s, let’s check its specs”.
Then you get it: when you are purchasing something, a sticker is all you can get about usability. You should test all the available products to understand which one is the most usable, and still it wouldn’t be enough, because many difficulties can arise only when you start knowing your product well.
Usability doesn’t matter while purchasing
Maybe they should introduce a law that imposes usability tests for each product on sale and showing the results right in the specs sheet, just like the energy class. I don’t know if this could be a good idea though: it would hurt to see usability at the same level of, let’s say, PIP support. But well, at least that would be better than nothing!
The bad news is that even a usability-concerned buyer is instinctively struck by feature madness when choosing among products… and the marketing guys know it. We too feel weak in our knees when we can buy something clearly better (specs tell the truth, baby!) with a little more; and who knows what would happen if one day there were 5 football matches on TV, and you really couldn’t miss a second of any of them!
That’s why we still buy badly designed products, which are impossible to use and frustrate us every day of our lives.
And that is why we should really try to make people conscious that products don’t have to be so unusable anymore.