Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Business Case for Better Web UI

A friend asked recently if I had a response to comments at the O'Reilly Web 2.0 Conference panel on Ajax back in October, with Joe Chung of Allurent, Peter Merholz of Adaptive Path and others. Chung had commented that, "The business owners understand the technology now and have become the drivers," Chung said. "But to really understand the ROI, you have to bring in statisticians and do a controlled study. Your hunches aren't good enough anymore." Merholz is also quoted saying, "Right now the business case is largely around the experience. It's going to have to get more finalized, and pretty soon, to drive adoption."

These comments are not so far from the mark, but they miss some key points that deserve mention as well. In the end the market forces for better Web UIs are strong, and what I see going on in the marketplace shows that the momentum is real. Let's break the analysis down a bit further into its parts, and look at the dynamics of the movement.

Designers and others I talk to tend to break the user experience benefits down into two related parts: efficiency and satisfaction. Efficiency has to do with issues like speed of operation and reduction in user mistakes. It is more measurable, like with a stopwatch. Fatigue and unpleasantness of the UI are more on the side of satisfaction, and you probably have to ask the users how they feel.

It's also pretty clear to me that usability is also driving acceptance of new Web-based services. Right now it is the younger, trendier, and more early adopter groups who tend to flock to sites with better user experience. Myspace is a good example of a site that is attracting huge numbers of young people, and they adopt newer and slicker techniques to catch their users attention and interest and to let them do things very quickly, which the Internet-oriented generation seems to strongly prefer. So usability plus general appeal tend to spell acceptance. As the newer user interface technologies spread, they will increasingly become a requirement that users will impose on the service providers.