Not Evangelism

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

How to Balance User Experience and Sales Targets

It's an old cliche: designers and UX professionals want to deliver good service, great experiences. Marketers and company owners want to sell products and services, and make a profit. The two parties are always at loggerheads.

Of course, beyond the cliche, is a fact of business life. But the two goals of delivering great user experience and making a profit can be balanced and co-exist happily. It is possible to strike a balance between the needs of the company and the needs of the users (and customers).

How? As with so much else, building trust with the user is vitally important.

Michel Roux's Service (BBC TV)

BBC television is running a series called "Michel Roux's Service" in which Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux Jr introduces seven young people to the restaurant industry with the aim of getting more Brits into the service side of the restaurant industry (for whatever reason, the roles of waiter, sommelier and maitre d' are treated with more disdain in the UK than they are in the rest of Europe, where they are seen as careers rather than something that students do).

Regular readers of ENE will know my fascination with good restaurant service and its relationship to great website user experience; the layers (or facets) of detail; the attention to the smallest concerns (because, after all, detail matters).

A recent program showed an interesting side to restaurant service, highlighting the need to balance the waiters' desires to provide genuinely great service with the restaurant owners' desires to sell food and drink.

In the program, the maitre d' (mentor to the trainees) described the importance of understanding a customer's needs, being attentive, delivering what the customers want, before the customers ask for it. He also talked about being able to use that relationship to upsell whatever special his restaurant or general manager wanted him to sell on a particular occasion.

My first reaction was that this was a cynical manipulation of the customer. After listening to the maitre d' describe it, however; after seeing his obvious enthusiasm and delight in his job, I realised that it was anything but. In fact, the interaction with the customer was genuine, honest, and motivated by providing great service; delivering a great (the word that was repeatedly used was "magical") experience for them.

Indeed, the upsell was enabled by the relationship between the customer and waiter; it was an almost-inevitable consequence of it. The trust made it possible to start a conversation, make a suggestion, to volunteer an opinion.

Building Trust

In interaction design, as in the restaurant industry, customer relationships are built on trust. When trust exists, customers are happy to have a conversation about their options; they become prepared to accept recommendations, to consider opinions.

The same is true of interactions online; the difference is that where there is no human connection, trust and credibility are built on other factors. Interaction design is a key factor in building that trust relationship. When a website asks for more information than is apparently needed for a simple checkout process; when it deliberately or unintentionally obscures the intent of questions and form capture; when navigation or layout just don't make any kind of sense from one page to the next - then trust breaks down. Users get suspicious and - so much more easily than in a restaurant - users leave.

Trust is hard won and easily lost. Getting the interaction right goes a very long way to building and sustaining that trust. User experience is not inimical to sales; it is complementary to it.

Business pressures can be the enemies of usability and UX design; taken too far they certainly can (and do) cross over into bad, manipulative practices (such as anti-patterns and dark patterns). But interaction design can help successfully balance user experience with sales. Of course we want to provide a great experience for our users; and they are our customers, we need them to be buying our products, using our services.

We can achieve that balance by acknowledging the tacit relationship, and being true to it. It's not acceptable (nor, it turns out, necessary) to manipulate users. The good news is that building trust with our customers enables us to sell more without manipulation.

As ever, being genuine cannot be faked.

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