Among Marty Cagan’s four dimensions of product success, he lists value and usability. Value is whether customers find it valuable enough to buy. For usability “the most difficult question is not really whether or not the user can figure out how to use the product, it is whether they even want to use the product.”
Of the four dimensions, value and usability are the externally facing ones. In other words, they are determined most by listening to customers. (The other two, feasibility and viability, are internally facing, in that we have to listen to our own internal experts.) But I sometimes see them as listening to two kinds of customers, or two kinds of customer thought processes.
Value is the battle for the customer’s mind. Very roughly, does this thing do what I want it to at a price I’m prepared to pay? Even more roughly, this is about someone playing the role of a Procurement Manager (or is an actual Procurement Manager) looking at a feature comparison spreadsheet, looking at the price, and making a calculation. They may be balancing our product against the competition, or against just carrying on without, or both.
Usability is the battle for the customer’s heart. Very roughly, do I actually want to use it? In most organisations, whoever is acting as the Procurement Manager isn’t the same person using the product. Once they’ve made their selection their job is done, and the actual user experience starts, running indefinitely. Those users are the ones who suffer the screen names that doesn’t make sense to ordinary people, the unintuitive sequences of actions, the inconsistent layout… or the ease of use, the new opportunities afforded, and the time saved.
Inside most product companies it’s the battle for the customer’s mind that tends to win, particularly if our customers are businesses. More customers want more features, and time is spent making our product bigger and more complicated to satisfy the Procurement Manager’s spreadsheet. The balance shifts a bit more towards the heart for consumer products—while most of us in our personal lives will make a judgement about functionality and price, in the end it’s quite acceptable to go with our gut, and a lot of that is about usability in its widest sense.
As one example, I know many software developers with a passionate dislike for Jira, but recognise that no alternative provides the same flexibility needed for their specific needs. Meanwhile there are plenty of social media apps which are popular just because they get the usability right, even while they are limited in functionality.
However, in a business setting usability is not simply subservient to value. The end users usually have some voice in the decision, and if one feature-rich-but-usability-poor product often wins out against its rivals, it may be just a matter of time before some competitor produces an option that satifies both hearts and minds sufficiently to displace it.
Achieving a high bar in usability is partly where user experience designers can play a role. After all, they are the ones paid to think about these things. But it’s not just up to them. All of us—software developers, marketeers, and others—continually have the chance to make smart priorities. It’s not about striking a balance between hearts and minds, as if it was a zero-sum game. We can win both hearts and minds.