Web Usability vs. Online Customer Experience

February 8, 2011

It is interesting how our history shapes the way we view the world.  These days, I’m spending my time focusing on the approach of websites and reflecting on the assumptions that influence how we think about and execute them.  Three themes appear to dominate the conversation rooted in the history and experience of the last 15 years.

The first theme is traffic. Simply put, how can I drive traffic to my site given everything that is competing for attention online?  SEO, SEM, Adwords, and PPC, are all focused on getting people to my site. This is a legitimate concern. After all, I can’t get results with a customer on my website unless I first drive them to my site.

Drive traffic to your site and enhance the online customer experience

However, once people are on my website, what happens then? At this point, the conversation largely turns to usability, the second major theme. In other words, is my website set up for optimal navigation and use standards in order to get good results?  What are the navigation conventions on my site.  How am I using buttons?  What content elements are placed where?  Then there is the whole topic of the shopping cart, etc. The approach of usability is largely rooted in the conventional wisdom of how websites are “supposed to work.”

Usability is important when it comes to functional websites.

Finally, the third theme that dominates the conversation is metrics and analytics.  This has been one of the major recent themes.  The focus is on measuring everything that happens when people get to my website.  There are the simple items like bounce rates, page-views, and time spent on site.  Then there are more complex approaches that measure click streams and correlate them with outcomes.  And so on.  The notion here is the glean insight to better improve usability and design to optimize results.

I’m often left wondering if there isn’t something of a blind spot in all of this.  There is so much emphasis on the technology and the logical approach of websites that I wonder if we aren’t missing an important insight.  A line from Albert Einstein comes to mind, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”

Albert Einstein

We are just beginning to see a new theme emerge, Online Customer Experience.  I think Online Customer Experience is subtly but significantly different that web usability.  Web usability has tended to focus on the design of websites to make them easier to use.  But it’s had a character of making the technology more logical.  My concern is we are at risk of forgetting there is a human on the other side of the mouse.  The theme of Online Customer Experience has three important characteristics that differentiate it from Web Usability.  The first is remembering that it’s a customer, a real human that is coming to your website.  What are the human dynamics at play that motivate behavior?  Second, all humans aren’t alike.  People of very different interests and characteristics end up at a company website.  How can you identify and address these different people or “personas”.  Third, focus on the experience of these people more than on the web technology.  In other words, what experience streams does your website provide that leads people to the outcomes you want?

I believe it’s time to add Online Customer Experience as a fourth theme that will transform the discipline of websites in important and powerful ways.

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