"It's not what your product does but how it appeals to the user that matters the most."
We were forced to accept this reality a few years ago when a certain customer turned down our product with the reasoning of a "not so great UI". Our product virtually had everything that matched their requirements but yet they said that our system was not user friendly. Issues that they pointed out included:
- Their end users were not sure what to do after they land in our login page.
- Most of them had issues in entering the login information (the 'username' and 'password')
- Many of them did not know where to look for courses once they logged into the system.
We were scratching our heads wondering what went wrong?
For one, we had an absolutely solid on-screen message immediately after registration that said "You will receive you registration email and steps on how to login to the system in 10-15 minutes". Secondly the email that went out to the system clearly mentioned the username and password. That too in bold and within quotes.
And of course we had the "Register" page where the user should be going to register for courses. Eventually we reached a logical conclusion and started accusing spam filters and security firewalls that could be blocking our automated emails in the first place.
A few days later another client came up with similar issue. Thankfully they were much more co-operative (and are still with us after all these years). This was when the truth dawned upon us. What if the user never read the message after registration? The reality is that most people never read what is on the screen!
After some back and forth email conversations, this customer revealed that many of the end users never actually saw the on-screen message. It was amazing because the message simply was staring at them all the time in highly visible red font!
Then came the next twist in the tale. Most of those who did receive the emails were actually copy pasting the password field including the quotes in it (so much for the quotes and highlighting).
The third one was even more bizarre.
The users who had actually logged in, never thought of the "Register" link as the place to register courses. They had already seen a "Register" link on the outside (the site registration link) and therefore chose to ignore this one.
We got around all these, then, by adding these seemingly simple things to the FAQ. But we also knew that these were things that we had overlooked while setting up the product. On hindsight it was a serious mistake that cost us a client.
Fast forward. We put up "user friendliness" right on top of the list when we sat down and discussed a new version of the product. We wanted to ensure that users would not end up making mistakes simply because we set it up the wrong way.
Now we have added tooltips (those tiny little help links) wherever relevant and we have added guidelines and more prominent on-screen texts and an FAQ, that we hope, no one would ever have to take a look. And we have incorporated a contemporary design. If you need a sneak peak please take a look here.
Coming back to the topic. The simplest thing that you could do when setting up an online product (or any product that involves low tech users at one end), is to find an alien to test drive it.
OK. Not literally. By alien I meant someone who is not at all familiar with this system. It must not be your conventional testers. The idea here is that if this particular user understands at least half of your product (what it is for and how it should be used) without any external help then you are likely to have success with most of the future users as well.
In short, the idea is to think from a end user's point of view. No matter how sleek your design is - with all those sliders and roll over animations - you should know that if the end user does not know where to click in the first place then it all becomes pointless. So the best thing to do immediately after setting up the UI would be to think in simple basic terms on how this will look for a normal low tech user (Important: Think without any presumptions). You are sure to find some scope for improvement right away.
The saying: To catch a criminal you have to think like one. I believe it is applicable in delivering a successful product as well. To win the hearts of the end-user you have to think like one or find someone who does.