Word_of_mouthIt will be if you don't do something about it.

At Experience Dynamics, (a Portland, Oregon usability consultancy) we recently helped one of our Fortune 10 clients with some usability testing on a product that was actively being improved for usability.

The client pointed us to a blog entitled "Worst Experience Ever" where the blogger recited his experience with the actual process the program manager was interested in usability testing. This blogger's posting had drawn the attention of the entire product team (yes, they are listening- keep writing). So, we tracked down the blogger and invited him to participate in our usability test. Needless to say, our client and the blogger were both delighted! As it turned out the blogger and other users were experiencing the same problems- he just had the wherewithal to write about it. The outcome was positive for both the end-user (a customer and fan) and the program manager who was able to directly include this user in the usability testing.

This is an interesting case of how the web can put you in touch with your users directly.

Bottom Line: Look to bulletin boards, forums, blogs, private and analyst reviews (and user comments on both) for input and feedback about weak areas with your product, brand, website or feature offerings. User researchers are now studying these information sources for leads into user thoughts, opinions and perceptions relating to product usability-- what is now dubbed "virtual ethnography".

A positive and sustained User Experience is the ultimate public relations

Think Google. In 1998, Google began providing a consistent and simplified search user experience (search box interface as well as search results). Popularity with the search engine grew in the dot com sector and with IT pros initially (many of whom still use it like they did from those early days). Google created a great public relations campaign by directly sustaining and nurturing a positive user experience.

Experiential Public Relations

The web is looking for democratization of content, because arrogance either accidental or inherent is not an option anymore. Word of mouth is now a highly legitimate concern of online marketers everywhere. For more see WOMMA the word of mouth association set up to promote awareness in this area. Experience shapes and influences perceptions, loyalty and word-of-mouth referrals.

Sustaining Criticism from Usability People

When a usability person (self-taught or classically trained) rants, they usually drop the roof on you. Usability is powerful and allows for multiple vantage points into an issue- you see business, you see technology, you see marketing rules and pitfalls wrapped around the user interface.

I have this theory that the more you learn about usability, the more elegant your bitching about poorly executed technology becomes. Does this explain Jakob Nielsen's "problem"? (opens How Usable is Jakob Nielsen? article)

The simple rule for sustaining the attack of a usability person is this: if your application or product has caused a usability evangelist to bark, you had better fix or address the problem, today. Of course, this advice comes to you from a usability consultant. Read more to see what happens if you don't heed this advise.

Another personal example from our recent deployment of a custom shopping cart. Due to the large number of international orders we had to deploy an international shipping cart for our Importance of User Experience poster. On a late night deployment of the cart our developer kicked a switch on the way out and disabled a form error checking element. A few days later we were alerted to a post by former Blogger CEO (now Odeo) Evan Williams. Thankfully Evan accepted our gratitude for waking us up to the Experience Irony and was kind enough to repost It Pays to Blog.

Here's an Interesting Line up of User Experience Offenders (flogged in cyberspace)

1) Apple- from usability guru  Bruce Tognazzini with "Top Ten (Nine) Reasons the Apple Dock Still Sucks". Tog's conclusion: "Keep the Dock as long as it helps close sales, but provide the real tools needed by people with serious work"

2) Adobe- from usability guru Jakob Nielsen with "PDF: Unfit for Human Consumption". Jakob's conclusion: "For online reading, however, PDF is the monster from the Black Lagoon. It puts its clammy hands all over people with a cruel grip that doesn't let go".

3) Macromedia (now Adobe)- from usability guru Jakob Nielsen with "Flash 99% bad". Jakob's conclusion: "About 99% of the time, the presence of Flash on a website constitutes a usability disease". Note: read the bottom of the article for more kind use of words about Adobe since they became Nielsen's client- which for the record, was Adobe's reverse-PR coup used to turn around the negative Flash publicity.

4) Microsoft- from CNET with "Five things you love and hate about Vista (Beta 2)"- June 19th 2006. CNET's take: "But based on what I've seen after living with Windows Vista beta 2 for a week, here are five things I think you'll like about the new operating system--some of which might persuade certain fence-sitters to upgrade--and five things that may convince others to stick with Windows XP for a few more years". Note: during the summer months, I saw more caustic analyst reviews of Vista Beta than praise. The top ones included error message handling SNAFU's like this one...(Flickr image) or this one.

5) MySpace- from Wired magazine with "Web 2.0 Winners and Losers". Wired's conclusion: MySpace is a loser; "The user interface is clunky and counterintuitive".

6) Sharp- another personal example. When I wrote this review of the Sharp Zaurus PDA for NewsFactor Network, I concluded (after doing some usability testing with the device first): "Enterprise deployment of the Zaurus may be another story, but from a
productivity and technical standpoint, the Zaurus fails to meet the
usability standard that has been set by other popular PDAs, such as
Palm, iPaq, Treo or BlackBerry. In a highly competitive PDA market,
ease of use is a distinct differentiator. On a scale of 1 to 5, users
in our study gave the Zaurus a 2.0 rating". It's interesting to note that when my review came out, the first call I had the next morning was
from the Public Relations firm that was handling the "Zaurus account" who insisted it was not a PDA but a "data terminal"... <sigh>.

How to avoid bad public relations due to poor user experience

1) Fix the problem and let your users know you are doing something about it if possible. When this angry blogger complained about's poor performance, the Salesforce CEO replied to users (and blogged about it- now removed). See how Salesforce handled it here. If this can't be done, see #4 below with examples.

2) Use usability testing to flush out problems with mismatched tasks and expectations. Users want to be successful and bring expectations to your user interface. If their brain wants to go one way and your design has them go the other, you'll likely create "cognitive dissonance". Usability testing early and often throughout a release will help remove many of the embarrasing problems that are often structural and difficult to fix later on. These are far worse than technical issues or bugs that can be squashed quickly typically.

3) Let analysts and the media know what is happening if possible. If your users are having issues, analysts will be having them too and will write about them. For example, earlier last year I noticed Firefox performance and
crashing (Feb-March time period). I asked a colleague and sure enough
the same issues were reported. A few weeks later, this Business Week post appeared with similar complaints.

An interesting side note with this Firefox VP interview (and others in the past), when user experience is touted, users in the comments redirect the conversation to the huge memory bleed that is core to Firefox's architecture. To my knowledge FFX acts like it's not there but it's users don't ;-) As one users said, "stop focusing on usability and fix the huge memory leak!".

4) Be tactful with your users no matter how cheesed-off they are. I need to tell you there are a myriad of usability issues with Typepad (the blog software used for this blog), some small- some major. Half of my support tickets are pleas to Typepad to improve known usability issues. And it turns out many Typepad users are also frustrated. One user blogged about the less than perfect Typepad experience and after hearing Typepad's response concluded: "Typepad doesn't suck. In fact it's pretty sweet". Typepad then artfully followed up with a We Heard You message.

Contrast this to the way project management software Basecamp (also has it's share of unintuitive functionality) handled their angry users recently:

"Jason Fried: JWright, thanks for the advice on how we should develop our products, but we feel like we have it under control. We know what we're doing." (posted on this blog)

Interestingly this handling is not an isolated incident for Basecamp
who experienced a lot of success last year with increased
subscriptions. In one Basecamp forum thread,
Fried implied that a disgruntled user should go create a rival product.
Several users have abreacted to Basecamp's rough handling and even set
up a Basecamp Sux site.

Parting thought: Is Web 2.0's "perpetual beta" philosophy a way of inoculating against the responsibility of dealing with online PR from poor user experience?

Web 2.0 promises us a fancy user experience (aka Rich Internet Applications) driven by ease of use. However, remember that usability is not just an idea (it's research that needs to be done properly). We now have over 20 years of documented and applicable usability guidelines and standards (UI Style Guidelines) we can learn from. Great user experiences grounded in matching features to user tasks and expectations produce deep seated loyalty and trust. And in terms of communicating our usability flaws, bugs or blunders, we need to remember to communicate with elegance, courtesy, and grace....

Best Wishes,
Frank Spillers, MS