Usability is customer experience. Why the little things add up to annoyance. 

Usability. It’s a topic of yesterday. Initially mashed up with accessibility, usability typically occupied whether tasks could be completed especially for those with disabilities. A handful of standards were developed including the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and PAS78.

Using a blend of testing tools, manual checklists and primary research, organisations would try their best, well some, to improve their accessibility and as a result improve the usability of whatever digital product they were working on, often after launch due to this testing being conducted at the end of a project.

In the world of shiny digital marketing, usability is no longer sexy. It’s old news. Surely, we should all be falling forward, test and learning or rapid iterating? But are these approaches an excuse for not putting in enough effort? What’s the penalty for not doing so?

Sounds pretty dead to me. Just what has usability got to do with customer experience? Maybe usability needs a rebrand – some consulting flimflam buzzword… try on Performance Optimisation for size. Hang on, we want performance and we want it optimised. Tell me more.


Firstly, Customer Experience (CX) is about customers*. *The clue is in the name.

I have to get this off my chest. Until the moment I purchase your thing, I’m a prospect. Call it a lead, sales or PX if you want to be all consulting about it. When I conduct a heuristic review (and I do a lot of them) I see 90% of the experience in this mode – all about addressing the needs of research, shortlisting and ultimately purchase. But when it comes to being a customer it falls off a cliff. Big time.

The problem for organisations is customers have a choice. So if they get fed up with what you’re doing (or not doing) for them, they’re going to leave you. I do love a good company divorce. It can happen slowly, often just being the drip drip effect of not being up to scratch.

Now, I worry about this stuff. If it was up to me I’d reverse it, spending 20% on the sales part of the funnel and 80% on actual customers. But nearly all organisations have a structure that is geared to prospects, where servicing customers is seen as a cost. 

Self-service or that wonderful thing called the internet is a dream at driving down these customer costs, to continue financing plenty of meaningless advertising. Did I say I’m not a fan of advertising?

What gets my attention is experiences from others – ye olde word of mouth from friends right through to online rating and reviews. There’s a direct correlation between actual customer experience and loyalty. People at Forrester have produced CXI studies that show the impact on:

  • High willingness to consider the company for another purchase
  • Low likelihood to switch business to a competitor
  • High likelihood to recommend to a friend or colleague

Often, the ownership (or customer) proposition is functional and largely emotionally negative. A brand study looked at the impact of emotion and found:

  • Cross-sell ratio increase from 16% (normal) to 82% (highly emotional)
  • Retention ratio increase from 30% (normal) to 84% (highly emotional)

Looks sounds and smells like sales to me. 

3,2,1… usability back in the room

Firstly, this is mean… picking on one organisation, but it’s one that’s been in my life for 30 years as a customer and one I’m considering leaving. Yes down to one small usability thing. It’s not a big deal, but these types of experiences build up over time, my likelihood for a recommendation is now close to 0%. Yes Natwest, that’s you.

I know, I know I could and should use bio… but I don’t always have my glasses on and being a frequent swimmer means my fingerprints simply don’t work for a while after coming out of the pool. I’ve tried and just end up locking myself out and having to go back through the onboarding journey. It means good old fashioned password entry.

This is one screen to illustrate and I’m not here to conduct a full audit or bash Natwest.

So this is just one moment in several screens, that on the whole are fine. I’m sure many sensible folks wouldn’t agonise over the usability of a banking app login. Or at least consciously. And that’s the problem with these usability niggles, they’re tiny, they’re under the radar and no one cares. But they do affect how people feel. The usability IS the customer experience.


Reinvent your design processes

Developing a good pattern library and testing it as ‘exemplar pages’ is mandatory, yet I often see that activity stripped out of project plans. It’s not that people don’t want to do it, it’s just the plan is too tight to allow for it. 

Usability has become a victim of the agile culture, where there’s never a moment to go back over the experience and look at all the detail. If you can do that with customers, even better.

A good starter list:

  1. Check contrast using tools such as Stark (in Sketch). BTW it’s the law. Light fonts on pale grey are not ok. LG – that’s your smart TV UI. 
  2. Make text large, legible and not graphics. Yes, people like to change their sizes to how they want
  3. Use interaction design, for example, simple animation, to signify when something has happened.
  4. Run through all those annoying test use cases on actual devices and browsers. 
  5. Interrogate the error logs (yes, you’ll need a properly set up analytics environment) to find out what’s going wrong frequently. It’s not the customer’s fault btw, it’s yours.

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