I celebrated Valentine’s Day the traditional way this year: filling out a really terrible online form for a funding application. Funding organization that received that application this week: if you do the kind of social media monitoring that lets you recognize that I’m talking about you, that is a sign that you have the web skills to do better!
As for the rest of you, I’m sure you don’t need to see the form in question in order to know what I’m talking about. The odds are good that at some point in your life you’ve filled out a form that, in its really terrible user experience, conveys this message: We have something you want (a job, funding, a freebie) so suck it up.
But the truth is that there is no organization that is so wealthy or sought-after that it can afford to convey that “suck it up” message. Good user experience isn’t just an instrumental value: it’s a crucial part of how you are communicating your organization’s values and strengths to the public.
Most web sites are pushed into delivering (or at least thinking about) good user experience because they are trying to get something from users: a contribution, a purchase, an e-mail address. Social web sites in particular have to deliver good user experience in order to elicit the sign-ups, profiles and user-generated content that bring an online community to life.
Anyone who has had to deliver a good user experience can tell you: it’s not easy. I have spent months working on the design and development of social sites, only to have the “d’oh!” moment of realizing we’ve got an upload or sign-up process that is missing a crucial step or explanation. And even knowing how hard it is to get right, I’m regularly amazed at the number of major, well-funded web sites and online communities that have major usability glitches or suffer from an overload of calls to action. (Upload a video! Sign up for our e-mail list! Comment on our blog! Vote in our poll!)
But at least these sites are trying. They are trying to make the contribution process as easy as possible, to provide the explanations that make the process clear, and to speed users on their way to successful participation. That has the instrumental benefit of increasing participation, not the least because it carries the message: your time and experience matters to us. We are trying to make this easy and fun for you.
When you’re the one giving something away, you may think you can opt out of that user experience challenge. It may seem like usability is an unnecessary expense; bad user experience may even seem like an ally, a way of weeding out the people who aren’t motivated enough to stick out the endless pop-up windows and error messages.
But bad user experience isn’t just your users’ problem. It’s your problem, because it’s delivering the single communications message that no organization can afford to deliver: the message that its audience doesn’t matter.