Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Holistic User Experience

SONAR v1.0 is just around the corner, and we've been thinking a lot about the user experience we offer. One of the key differences this time round is the recognition that User Experience is not just about the interface. Users in this sense are not just end users - they're *anyone* who interacts in any way with your software or your company. They include the sysadmins who have to install your stuff and keep it up and running, the managers who have to make a purchasing decision about whose software to spend their hard-won budget on.

So we believe that User Experience is about looking at the whole experience the user has in interacting with your software and you. It's about making the whole thing as easy as possible for them, right from the way they hear about it, through purchasing and finding the information they need to make an informed decision, through installation, configuration, administration, ongoing support, right the way through to migrating away from it if they want to.

Yes, I did say that you have to make it easy for them to migrate away from your
software. No, that's not a dumb thing to do.

There's two ways of looking at it - self-centred or user-centred. The first way often involves making it difficult to get their data out of your system once it's in there, end-of-lifing old versions and occasionally making new versions incompatible so that they have to keep buying your upgrades or they lose access to their data.

This is bad, m'kay? It's called Vendor Lock-In, and although it can do good things for your bottom line in the short term, ultimately it can create frustration and resentment among your users - Bad User Experience.

The thing to remember is that these days, people move around frequently. They change jobs, they change cities and countries at the drop of a hat, so if you create a Bad User Experience your bad reputation will spread along with the people who had it. The democratised web has created a situation where reputation has become more of a crucial commodity than ever before.

If you had to make a purchasing decision between system x and system y, and both of them had pretty much the same features for a pretty similar price, what factors would you use to make that decision? The first thing I'd do is ask around for anyone who's used either system before, and see what they thought of it. If I heard stories like "Yeah, it's OK, but once you buy it you're stuck with it" I'd hear alarm bells. I'm far more likely to go with a system that lets me get my data out easily if i change my mind for any reason.

You'd also look at questions like - whats the support like? Is there an active user community? Do they have forums / wikis / comprehensive FAQs? Do the reported bugs look they get fixed? Is it easy to find the information you need on the website?

You might give them a call to ask some questions, which opens up a whole new set of potential decision influencers - how quickly did they answer the phone? Did they sound happy to help? Did you have to navigate a labyrinthine set of automated menus for ten minutes before you actually got to speak to someone? Or even worse - did the menus have a voice recognition system that couldn't understand your accent?

All of the above factors - and many more - contribute to the user's experience of your company and your software, and all are potential factors that influence whether someone decides to spend their money on you. We know we've a long way to go in a lot of these areas, but we recognise this, and we're looking - and that's a great start.