There is a huge problem in the software and web services industry: 3rd
party applications, widgets, dashboards or site add-ons can kill your usability efforts.

Poor user experiences with 3rd-party applications can undermine or make your usability efforts look bad. 

Vendors such as PeopleSoft, Vignette and many others are notorious
for providing "clunk-ware", "vapor-ware" or "sneaker-ware" as one of
our clients at Experience Dynamics put it.   

Let's explore why this is a major problem that you need to confront head on, or be a victim of 3rd-party usability issues.

First, a 3rd-party application, content feature or widget is
something that adds-value to your site and potentially to the user
experience. It might be an entire account management dashboard, content
management system, a 3D model of the human body, a mortgage calculator,
a job board or a web service like an ecommerce shopping cart or secure
service solution.

Configuration Nutritional Deficiency

In my article "Configuration Hell"
I discussed how users don't do configuration behavior very well. In the
case of software vendors, they provide already pre-configured
applications or web services. In many cases software is developed fully
loaded with features, and configuration entails "turning off"
nonsensical screen elements and elements of functionality.

Open source software suffers from the same lack of understanding of
defaults; poor or badly organized content and features; functionality
lacking a task-oriented design.

Software vendors regularly ship products with poor usability, that
are poorly configured. Worse, the practice of shipping unusable web
applications or web services seems to be a business model.

"Oh, you want us to configure it so it's usable...?"

The idea is that you get a baseline package (largely un-configured)
and if you want it to reflect a coherent user experience (like the rest
of your site), you will need to pay more.

For me, this business model lacks integrity. Up-selling should be
used for adding powerful features, not for gaining access to basic
usability. The reality is that most Fortune 1000 companies will
typically pay for the baseline product, ending up with a shoddy or inferior user experience.

Another reality of 3rd-party usability is that project, program or
product managers are not able to do anything about 'locked down'
third-party applications, widgets or re-directs to outside applications.

Herein lies the problem: users don't know when they are entering
3rd-party country. To users, it's all one big swirling experience. Poor
user experiences with 3rd-party applications can undermine or make your
usability efforts look bad. 

How to minimize third-party usability problems

1. Negotiate for usability standards maintenance when signing agreements.

What many companies are doing is writing usability guarantees into
the contracts so that vendors are forced to adhere to your standards
before they win the contract. This is the most direct and legally
binding way to leverage usability in the vendor relationship and
with the solution they deliver. Sound drastic? Many of our clients are
doing this, having been burned by third party usability issues year
after year.

I encourage the practice, and I think vendors need
to recalibrate the business model of selling unusable systems. Offering
usability from the get-go is core value, it's not a value-add that you
should dangle as a carrot in your customer's face for up-sell purposes.

2. Mandate your usability standards as a necessary requirement to integrating a third-party application.

Vendors often will beta their next release for a negotiated price. Be careful if you choose to be a beta guinea-pig:

A ruined user experience reputation could cost you more in long term customer retention and satisfaction
than buying clunky functionality that doesn't work as users expect, and
integrates poorly into your development environment, causing you to
write countless API's to patch the problems, for example.

Work with your vendor over the course of your relationship to encourage
usability as a requirement in their development process.

As a customer you have tremendous influence over vendor development directions. Demand usability as a requirement and encourage specific usability enhancements, maybe not in this release, but in next year's for sure.

I don't think it's wise to even ignore usability in your software purchasing evaluation process. Apparently, neither do 70% of software buyers in a recent study by the Sand Hill Group & Neochange (2008) who rate user adoption (usability issue) as more important then features or functionality in software purchasing.


senior usability lead should be on hand to provide concrete input if
not "gut feel" input. If you don't have a senior usability person, hire
a usability consultant and have them do an informal or formal usability
audit on the intended product. This is a perfect use for usability
consulting firms. If you're going to spend
money on usability later, why not bake it into your due diligence as
one of the risks you need to manage up-front? 

my ten years of experience with usability consulting, I have heard many
attempts to have me evaluate a 3rd party product before purchase- even
with an existing client- but somehow that criteria gets overlooked or
minimized in importance. Rarely is the usability due diligence
conducted. As a result I run into a lot of clients who are "stuck" with
3rd party usability issues.

Demand a change in direction from your software vendors and partners
and you'll avoid or greatly minimize the inherited usability problems
that often come with 3rd party applications and web services and tools.
That way you won't be a victim of 3rd party usability and neither will
your users.

Best Wishes,

Frank Spillers, MS