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Published on August 21st, 2008 | by Rahel Bailie


Poor usability marring site experience sparks thoughts on ROI

I just received an email from New Media BC asking me to update my profile. The link went to their site, but from there, I was stymied. As a user experience professional, I was rather offput at the lack of intuitiveness of the site. After all, these folks are “in the biz”, so to speak. Surely they’ve heard of user-centered design (UCD)? I even emailed them to say that if they want members to update their profiles, it’s just a thought, but maybe a link that goes to the member account or profile area would be a good idea. All I can see is a “change password” area when I’m logged in, and I’ve read every word on the page.

Then it occurred to me that it could be a browser incompatibility problem. No, surely not from an organization with the words “New Media” in their name. No, it doesn’t seem to be that problem, though IE does seem to pile the sub-menu words on top of each other as I mouse over the primary menu items, requiring me to refresh the screen several times before I can read all menu items.

This is a classic situation of the “cute but not too bright” site. The site was developed to be very attractive and nominally useful, but I can tell that there was no user-centered design involved. If there had been, the persona of “Member” with a relatively core scenario of “logging in to update profile” would have yielded an appropriate usecase, and the resulting deliverables – wireframes and transaction screenflows – would have addressed this rather shocking gap.

Now, I will admit to being the 5% for whom things don’t work the way they do for the rest of the world. For example, when the local telecommunications company came to my multi-tenanted office building to install a cell tower, they knocked out a couple of phone lines by accident. Mine was one of them. So perhaps the site works fine for most others, and it’s just me that’s not seeing some bright, well-placed link to “Member Profile”, and if that is so, I apologize for using this organization as an example.

But let’s assume, for a moment, that what I see is what everyone else sees. In that case, the resources expended doing the mail-out, asking members to update their profiles, has now been in vain if the email recipients cannot fulfill the request. Additional resources will be expended to handle the requests that arrive from members wondering how to complete the task. If, indeed, a fix needs to be made, yet more resources are needed to fix the site, then send out another email to members. The results of the second email may be less effective than the first, as members may assume this is simply a resend of the first email and delete without reading it.

The principle remains true: it’s critical for a website to be useful first, pretty second, and the only way to ensure that is to follow a UCD process before tackling the graphic side of the design. In the previous example, the ROI of employing UCD before creating the site, the first time, in a way that all the core use cases could be handled would have far outweighed the financial and relationship consequences of only one botched email campaign. Back in the 190s, one agency estimated that “…cost-benefit ratio for usability is $1:$10-$100. Once a system is in development, correcting a problem costs 10 times as much as fixing the same problem in design. If the system has been released, it costs 100 times as much relative to fixing in design.” (Gilb, 1988) I would love to see some numbers from this decade, as agile development methods may have turned the metrics a bit. However, whether the ratio is $1:$10-$100 or has dropped to $1:$5-$50, those are still large numbers, if you think of it in terms of shareholder profit that could be recovered while improving service to customers.

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About the Author

Rahel Anne Bailie is a synthesizer of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase the ROI of content. She has consulted for clients in a range of industries, and on several continents, whose aim is to better leverage their content as business assets. Founder of Intentional Design, she is now the Chief Knowledge Officer of London-based Scroll. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, she has worked in the content business for over two decades. She is co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy, and is working on her third content strategy book,

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