It’s sometimes pointed out to me that my idealism around the user experience is inherently flawed. One day, the reasoning goes, rubber will meet the road for any company and it’s going to be necessary to do something to gain revenue at the expense of making the user happy.
And I guess it’s true. I mean, consider:
There’s Blockbuster. Keeping a broad inventory is a lot of work and expense. It’s easier, and more favorable to revenue, to stock only the most popular stuff. Also, you can definitely make a ton of money by charging late fees.
Hmm. The only problem there is that Blockbuster just filed for bankruptcy.
Okay, okay, that’s fine. How about Comcast? Having installers permanently on the payroll is a pain in the ass – paid time off, benefits, training costs, ugh. Outsource that action, let someone else do the worrying instead. Sure, these techs won’t care about the company culture (such as it is), and since they get paid by the installation, they won’t care about conducting business in a way that leads to a long-term positive opinion of Comcast. There will be less oversight, so they might screw up in ways that are embarrassing. Time management could be challenging for these local outfits and people might be late for appointments… But – revenue!
I guess the wrinkle is that kind of thinking tarnished Comcast’s brand so severely, they had to change the name of their consumer service. Maybe customer perception had nothing to do with it – rebranding is fun and it can’t cost much, right? Any long-established brand would want to do it, eh? Maybe not so much.
Fine, how about Yahoo? They made a really great play – push the portal angle really hard, don’t focus too much on search. I mean, if search works too well, people won’t stay in the portal and then how can you monetize all these millions of eyeballs? Nah, display ads. That’s where it’s at. Sell banners by the boatload. Bulk up that ad sales team!
So maybe dicking your users isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, assuming you want prosperity to continue more than the next few quarters.
What about being good to users? How does providing an outstanding user experience change things?
Turns out the iPad is the fastest-selling non-phone product. Despite the fact that, as shipped, the iPad couldn’t print, can’t use Flash, and doesn’t have a camera, people are buying it in droves. 4.5 million units sold in the first quarter it was available. Maybe “being hip” is suddenly important to the broad cross-section of consumers who are buying it, and they have been convinced that upwards of $500 is a fair price for the privilege. More likely, though, is that a focused, task-oriented, touch-based interaction scheme where no one nags you about software updates is more enjoyable and intuitive than a netbook.
Apple is one of the largest companies in the world. Their focus on the user is not limited to the iPad.
Then there’s Zappos. Their values include being good to everyone – customers, employees and vendors alike. Their website has been consistently great for exploring their inventory and making informed decisions about shoes before buying. High quality images, easy to use filtering, detail-packed user reviews, all of it conspires to make purchasing easy. When you get on the phone with their customer service folks, you’ll find people empowered to help without rushing you back off the phone. They’ve long refused to outsource any activity that’s core to their business, including customer service and their fulfillment operations. They want to make sure these user-facing elements of their business are air-tight. This isn’t cheap.
Neither is the billion dollars Amazon spent to buy Zappos last year.
Then there’s Google. Say what you want about their creepy ways, Google revolutionized search. They made it work extraordinarily well, made it focused and made it fast. They’ve invested huge amounts of money on infrastructure to make sure their service is as snappy as possible. Instead of display ads, which would have been the easy but user hostile approach to making money from their traffic, Google borrowed Overture’s Pay-Per-Click advertising model. Paid search ads are perhaps the only form of genuinely useful ads for the user. They can actually solve the problem of your search.
Creating a good user experience is important. It builds goodwill between your company and your users, yes. But much more importantly, it compels you to make a better product. Constantly re-evaluating your product for the benefit of its users future proofs your business. Look at Netflix, busy obsoleting itself by pioneering living room streaming. When you care about doing things well, your business moves at pace that’s very difficult to overtake. You’re a moving target and your products become much harder to compete with.
So can you dick over your users to goose your revenues? Absolutely. There’s a lot of short term juice in alienating the people you need most. Unfortunately, money is an addicting, distracting force. Before you know it, you’ll be dependent on the cash your user hostile approach to product requires. Ask Yahoo.
Anyone playing the long term game should approach the problem differently. Do it right and you’ve got the potential for a billion dollar business. Even if you never get there, gushing praise from your users is a lot more fun, and profitable, than simmering rage.
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