SmoothSpan Blog

For Executives, Entrepreneurs, and other Digerati who need to know about SaaS and Web 2.0.

User Experience is the Most Important Thing: it’s the Only Thing.

Posted by Bob Warfield on September 27, 2007

I was recently chatting with my old mentor and boss Philippe Kahn about startups.  Philippe has been ahead of the curve throughout his career, and has prospered commensurately.  He’s most well known as the creator of the camera phone in 1997, which his company Lightsurf introduced.  He’s infectiously passionate about software and business, and I always take note when he wants to take a particularly strong stand on some issue.  In this case, his issue was user experience.  We were chatting about what aspects of product lead to what Marc Andreesen calls Product/Market Fit.  Market Fit is that state of bliss where your product fits a market so well that it is literally pulling product out of  you.  Unbridled demand rears its lovely head and your job at that point is to hang on for dear life and keep delivering.  Andreesen, in the post I’ve linked to above, says that achieving this fit is the only thing that matters for a startup.  I think we (Philippe, Marc, and I) are all in violent agreement on that, but Philippe took the concept to a more focused level when he said to me,

“User Experieence is the Most Important Thing, it’s the Only Thing.”

He was brandishing his iPhone at me to make the point all the more clear.  What makes the iPhone so special?  It’s user experience.  As Philippe says, it isn’t what the iPhone does, it’s how it does it.  You can’t capture user experience on a bulleted checklist any more than you can understand the beautiful sound of a pure audiophile stereo system by reading such specifications as total harmonic distortion.  On paper, the better user experience may even appear to be inferior but try it out for yourself and there is no doubt.

So, the task at hand for a startup is to provide the best possible user experience for a group of users that is large enough to make an interesting market.  If you can provide a quantum leap in user experience for that market, you may have a breakthrough hit on your hands.  This is why some of the greatest trends and hits of our day are happening.  SaaS provides a dramatically better user experience to the Enteprise compared to most difficult to use and install Enterprise software.  If you build a SaaS product that has a dramatically worse user experience than the incumbent software, you’ll be wondering why it doesn’t sell.  Web 2.0 offers a compelling user experience versus the last generation of Web technologies.  The iPod, iPhone, and Macintosh are all about radical user experience improvement.  Flex is all about delivering a whole new level of user experience on the web. 

It’s not easy to get a fabulous user experience, but ironically, it’s also not incredibly expensive.  It’s hard because you have to build it into your company’s DNA.  People have to care.  It won’t happen by accident.  It can be thwarted if you get too focused on feature lists.  It requires lots of customer contact and testing.  Good user experience is tragically knowable.  User Experience requires a particular skill set.  Make sure you have people who’ve been associated with great user experiences in the past, and not just “UI design experts”.  If there is nobody on your team who has the title, temperament, and skill set of “designer” instead of “engineer”, you need to change that fast.  If you’re trying to enter a new market, the first thing you need to do is nail down a good user experience through prototypes and testing.  All the rest follows. 

How do you improve user experience?  The answers are all around us if we’re sensitive to them.  It’s a question of listening.  Here’s a random sampling of things I read just recently that seem innocuous but that inform us about user experience:

  • Sleepers:  37Signals asks what to do about Sleepers.  These are folks who signed up for an account but aren’t using it.  They propose bribing or goading the sleeper back to consciousness.  I’d look at it much differently.  The Sleepers are a huge asset because they represent a User Experience failure.  They thought they wanted what you had badly enough to sign up, but they couldn’t get over the hump.  It’s urgent for you to find out why and fix it.  Chances are there will be many dispersed reasons, so don’t give up easily interviewing until you’re sure you’ve heard it all.
  • Ask Them What They Hate:  A great counterpoint to Sleepers from Jeff Monaghan.  We’ve all taken the little user surveys after visiting a site.  Most of them are begging for praise: please rate our service!  Jeff wants to beg you to tell him what you hated.  He wants to identify problems he can solve.  Jeff rightly assumes we must always be vigilant for chances to improve the user experience.
  • The Power of Chunking:  Seth Godin reminds us one more time that you get to communicate in chunks of 7, no matter what you are communicating.  That’s how the wetware (our brains) you interface to works.  It’s fascinating how often this enters the picture.  It’s why telephone numbers have 7 digits.  For menu structures, don’t put more than 7 entries on a menu lest the user forget the first entry by the time they’ve read the 7th.  Never put more than 7 bullets on a slide.  In fact, I try for less, but view 7 as a hard stop.

User Experience is the Most Important Thing: it’s the Only Thing.  What are you doing with your business and products to ensure the utmost user experience?  How are you innovating on user experience?

Related Articles:

How could I not put Nick Carr’s Fat Guy in Salesforce Hell here?  As I say in my comment to his post, “User Experience is the big picture, the little picture, the alpha, and the omega.  If you screw it up, even SaaS and Marc Benioff can’t save you!”

Make sure you’re not pursuing a proxy to use experience instead of the real thing:  Apple is there with their iPhone bricking shenanigans.

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2 Responses to “User Experience is the Most Important Thing: it’s the Only Thing.”

  1. [...] on Is Conventional Software Built…Is Conventional Soft… on Interview: Concur’s CEO …User Experience is t… on Marketing is Tragically Knowab…Post de la semaine :… on Great Products Become [...]

  2. [...] is critical.  Find some awesome user experience executive and give them the absolute power to make the User Experience right.  This person has to make designers and other UX peeps alpha dogs right alongside the algorithm [...]

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