is user-friendliness a sure marketing bet?

Very often, I hear people say that you have to make your end-user’s lives easier to generate a marketing success. However paved with good intentions this statement may be, I did ask myself the question whether making users’ live easier is a sustainable marketing argument for the development of a business. Here are my thoughts on this subject:

First and foremost, I wondered whether revenue could be linked to user-friendliness and ease of use of the service? Very often, it is said that what made Apple’s success was the user-friendliness of its products. This explanation, however, is very debatable. What could be simple for a certain user, mainly because he is used to a certain feature or a certain way of doing things, may seem complex to another. And this is even true of such well-designed products as the Mac Intosh, or the iPOD. For instance, it happened to me many times that I advised new Apple buyers who were complaining about the lack of the contextual click on their new Mac mouse. I had to show them that they had to press the button for approximately one second in order to display that contextual menu. This simple gesture may seem very user-friendly to most Mac users, whereas having a two button mouse may seem very unusual and quirky to them. But to most Windows users (just a little reminder, this is 97% of the population) this way of working with a mouse is very quirky too. Can we easily conclude that these design particularities (which could be considered as great by some and quirky by others) are a good selling argument, which are sufficient to explain how successful the product was? I’m not really sure, due to the fact that there are a number of users who discover these design features after buying the products and not before.

Secondly, I’m wondering whether user-friendliness is a constant with time? As a matter of fact, I think that user-friendliness can be pictured on a curve (similar to the hype cycle curve by partner), which explains the evolution of a user and the user-friendliness factor in the course of the usage of the machine or software. By the time a user gets used to the features of the new software or the new hardware, including those which are very exotic, the end-user will become more and more exacting. A feature which might be unusual, or even useless when you start using a product for instance, may eventually prove very useful and even compulsory with time. For instance, when I started using my newly purchased HTC 7500 advantage, the 3-D communication capability seemed to me superfluous; but I started using it more and more, and then I started to dive into the complexity of the menus and options. Now, the 3-G capability of my PDA has really become irreplaceable. If I were to lose it, I would struggle goes straight away to shop and buy a flat fee subscription for 3G, because I really need this feature now. As a conclusion, what seemed complex and useless at the outset (menu configurations to connect, proxy parameters, etc) very shortly became an absolute necessity for me to connect my machine to the Internet and use it to the full.

Thirdly, it may happen that a feature, which seemed user-friendly, and convenient in the beginning, becomes useless and irritating with time. For instance, we could describe the T9 (so-called ‘predictive text’) feature on mobile phones as very useful when we discover it for the first time. When you don’t have a keyboard on your mobile phone or your smartphone and you want to type a text (short message, note, calendar entrey, etc) this feature may seem really great and useful. You start typing the beginning of the words, and then the system will fetch into the dictionary and will complete the entry. However, with time, this feature appears quirky, and even generates unwanted effects. As a result, the feature which was meant to simplify usage becomes cumbersome, superfluous, and it even gets on your nerves to a point where you actually de-activate it (as long as you are able to work your way through the menus to re-instate manual entry). Eventually, users and mostly youngsters prefer to use abbreviations, and even this weird phonetic SMS lingo to communicate. This is a good example of a feature which seemed useful in the beginning, and was meant to make users’ lives easier, but which at the end of the day is so complex that the users want to get rid of it.

Other pertinent examples can certainly come to your mind, but as a conclusion of these brief article, I can add that user-friendliness is probably what is the most difficult thing to achieve in this world, because it is both subjective and personal (what seems easy for one may seem difficult to others) and because it evolves with time, with the usage of the system in one way or another. At the end of the day design can be a hell paved with good intentions, where user-friendliness and simplicity is aimed at but where one generates a lot of irritation and frustration. Most importantly, because this criterion is very subjective, it would probably generate a halo effect if we were to try and measure its impact on sales and revenues, or even worse if we were to predict future revenues based on user-friendliness. Conversely, we can certainly find a very good number of products or services, which went through huge commercial success despite the fact their usability was really bad or even downright awful (one will remember. Siemens’ Gigaset telephones, which were tremendously successful from a commercial point of view a few years ago whereas their menus were absolutely useless; for instance turning on your speaker phone required that you pressed the ‘INT’ key and then press eight for what it means!?). I hope that this article however is not going to entice manufacturers to make lives even more difficult for users, because I think this is hard enough as it is.

However, and however much we regret it, we think it would be wrong to believe that user-friendliness and the quality of a user manuals is a recipe for success.