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Usability and the Customer Experience: It’s not just Web Design

by Conor Mackin , 10.01.2012

This article is re-posted from User Centric’s blog.

While enjoying the company of my family and friends over these last few weeks, I found myself explaining yet again what it is I “do.” Per usual I was cut off when a friend began to explain how he knew all about my profession and that usability testing is used to improve Web page design. Having prepared myself for this response, I went on to explain how usability and the user experience are in fact very wide-reaching.

Conversations like these are remarkably similar to a casual search for “new approaches to improving the customer experience through good design and usability.” Inevitably Google spits back link after link, outlying the virtues of proper usability in Web design. This isn’t to say that websites are not an important component of a customer’s e-experience—they are—websites are just one sliver of the customer experience in which usability plays a part.

As an example, let us consider a customer coming off the street to buy a new mobile device from his current service provider. We’ll call him John.  As John walks into the store, he is first presented with a kiosk in which he can add his name to a waitlist, specify his reason for visiting and view his place in the queue. Minutes later the sales associate’s PDA pulls up John’s ticket number and informs the employee that John is here to purchase a new mobile device.  As the employee shows John several device options, John takes the time to interact with various interfaces and applications. Finally satisfied with a phone, John proceeds to check out.  At the counter, the employee is able to quickly access John’s complete account history, find eligible upgrades and then activate his new phone with the old account information.  When John finally gets home, he tosses aside the detailed instructional manual and instead reads the “Quick Start” guide for his new phone and within minutes John is enjoying the device’s Mobile Web.

In the above scenario, there are several instances where John’s experience most likely benefited from usability testing or design evaluations:

1.  The registration kiosk

2.  The employee’s PDA

3.  The design and function of the various phones

4.  The applications on the phones

5.  The checkout screen

6.  Both the detailed and quick-start instructional manuals

7.  The Mobile Web browser

This example sets the stage for areas where usability can be explored, but it doesn’t answer the question of what usability is or should be.  Since I stated earlier that usability is “not just Web design,” I must elaborate on these points. As much as I feel giving a textbook answer for usability is clichéd, the one provided by the International Standards Organization (ISO) resonates strongly with me; “[Usability] is the effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction with which users can achieve tasks in a particular environment or a product”.  The inclusion of “environment” and “product” sum up how usability can be a practice applicable to any mechanism/system in any environment with which people interact.

Applying an environmental overview of usability to the customer experience allows one to incorporate a variety of other approaches, such as error management to improve product and procedural safety, examining behind-the-scenes interactions between employees that can improve a customer’s experience at, for example, a hotel, or using anthropometric and strength data to improve at-home use of medical devices.

It is this all encompassing approach that I love about our profession and why I emphasize that usability is not just for the Web.  As user experience professionals, I think we should continue to educate each other, and those outside the community, that usability, our profession, is truly infinite.