Is user experience really expensive?

While the market for user experience consulting has continued to grow over the last five years, some organisations are only taking their first steps in prioritising investment in professional user experience consultancy.

And it’s often these organisations who need it most – charities with internal disputes about their brand and what to publish online; small businesses who have a world of opportunity at their feet but apparently no money or time to grasp the nettle; local authorities who struggle to separate internal needs from user needs, and therefore navigating and reading their content is frustrating.

Why can’t these organisations apparently afford user experience when they need it so much? I’ve found three reasons:

1. For some, investing in digital channels is not top priority

In companies there’s only ever a limited amount of capital investment or operational investment any one person can lay their hands on. Even in online businesses, there’s usually more than a website or an app to focus on. I’ve found that organisations reveal their ‘strategic underpants’ with their investment decisions (what they do), rather than through all the finely tuned PowerPoint presentations they produce (what they say).

As a result, getting digital or customer-facing investments to the top of the list of priorities is not typically a battle for the faint-hearted. To many organisations, digital feels very new, and many organisations are yet to define how to adequately measure the return on their digital investment.

2. The business operates on a short-term outlook

Investing in user experience is not a ‘magic wand’. Carrying out a usability test can certainly have an above average impact on performance if the right people and processes are in place to deliver on the recommendations.  But it won’t make your website or app ‘perfect’ (is there such a thing?) and it certainly won’t influence the organisation that created it to suddenly become attuned to customer needs.

For companies that are only comfortable driving to short-term goals rather than setting strategic direction, with all the organisational change and risky decision-making longer term thinking implies, investing in user experience can become frustrating if there’s not an immediate payoff.

When senior managers’ time is swallowed up with analysing and taking actions based on daily sales figures, working towards how customers will behave in two years’ time, let alone five or 10 is a serious challenge that websites and apps won’t fix if there’s a lack of commitment across the organisation. A better approach is for rest of the organisation to focus on delivering operational efficiency so that senior management can dedicate more time to strategic planning and direction-setting.

3. Only the few, not the many, need dedicated specialists

A simple fact of life when you’re dealing with profit-and-loss ledgers: smaller businesses can’t sustain large, dedicated teams with niche, specialist skills.

If you’re the finance director in a business that turns over say £5m, the way your job works and the resources you have available to you are going to look very different to that of a finance director of a business turning over £500m. These organisations need different approaches to investing in digital.

The £500m business may well have its own digital team with some in-house expertise in design and user experience. The £5m business may be lucky to have one person dedicated to marketing, let alone people managing websites, social media and apps.

To the smaller business, user experience projects may be be seen as expensive. The key here is for the organisation to understand the value of user experience over time. A usability test may cost a five figure sum, but what will that investment return for them over 3, 6 or 12 months? Modelling cost versus benefit provides a (financial) measure of value.

Value not cost

Nevertheless, for all businesses cost is a short-term lever. For managing directors and CEOs, reducing variable costs may help to paint a rosier picture of profit and loss in this quarter’s numbers. But lowering costs alone doesn’t usually pave the way to a winning long-term strategic advantage.

For that, you also need to consider customer needs and preferences, changes in the competitive environment, technological change, supply chain issues. These are long-term, strategic issues. Companies that win in the long term have a clear idea of how these issues will affect them, and they’re willing to make bets on putting themselves in a position for these trends to play into their hands. These changes to the business are core to their strategy. If the business is not making bets, it’s likely to be stagnating, strategically speaking.

Salaries for people working in UX are rising – driving up costs. But the reason for demand is that companies are waking up to the value of user experience. It’s a long-term trend that began with the dot com crash and the realisation that usability matters. Since usability remains a competitive advantage, there’s no sign that trend will end soon.

So is user experience really expensive?

Perhaps for some. But for those who invest wisely, cost is the wrong metric to measure. In his book Software Engineering: A Practitioner’s Approach, Robert Pressman shows that the cost of making a change to software during requirements or design phases is up to 100 times cheaper than making changes post launch. Following this logic, neglecting users early on actually costs you more money in the long run. Therefore those companies who take a step back to apply the learnings of a user-centric approach in a systematic way will generate the most value from their investments.

[First posted on the cxpartners blog on 13 Aug 2015]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s