More Than Usability: The Four Elements of User Experience, Part III

Eliciting Desired Behavior

Designing for business success

A column by Frank Guo
March 4, 2013

In Part II of this series, I explained the benefits of breaking down user experience into its four elements—usability, desirability, adoptability, and value—and discussed ways of applying this framework to help you develop products that customers love. In Part III, I’ll discuss the relative importance of each of these four elements in driving UX success, according to the type of product your team is developing. Understanding the relative importance of the four elements is critical to correctly prioritizing product design and development efforts.

When assessing your product’s user experience, keep in mind that not all elements of user experience are of equal importance. As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, a product’s usability often matters less than its adoptability, value, and desirability, because these three elements play a large role in getting users to start using the product. However, that’s not always the case; it depends on the type of product you’re developing. Let’s look at a few common product categories.

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Enterprise Software: It’s All About Value

For enterprise software such as accounting software, CRM solutions, or financial-analysis tools, the most important UX element is the value the product provides in relation to users’ needs. Does your product address indispensable job-related tasks? Does it provide comprehensive functionality that is well suited to users’ workflows? Does it interface well with in-house tools? Is it secure? Enterprise software meets a very practical need; therefore, value plays a key role in its design.

In addition to value, usability is, of course, a very important consideration. Users need to be able to complete their tasks with efficiency and accuracy. Otherwise, the software simply fails to deliver value.

Desirability is less important in driving the usage of enterprise software. Users do not expect to have fun using the software. They are required to use it as part of their job. Of course, making the software fun to use wouldn’t hurt, but that’s far from a key request from users. Based on past user research that I’ve conducted, corporate users often perceive fancy visual design as gimmicky. After all, they just want to complete their designated tasks in the most efficient way possible, with little distraction. Nor does adoptability play an important role, because users have no say in what software they’ll use.

Figure 1 is a diagram that shows the relative importance of the four UX elements for a hypothetical enterprise software product. The numbers indicate the weightings of the four elements. In this hypothetical example, I’ve assigned desirability a weight of 0.3; adoptability, a weight of 0.5.

Figure 1—Relative weightings of the four UX elements for an enterprise software product
Relative weightings of the four UX elements for an enterprise software product

Product teams should work out such weightings based on their own understanding of their product and its users. Assigning weightings is optional. You don’t need them to see the relative importance of the UX elements. However, weightings could be useful if product team members react better to numbers—especially if the team intends to create some kind of scorecard to measure a product’s success.

Games: Desirability Is the Name of the Game

Developing games is a completely different story. Unlike enterprise software, most games are intended to provide entertainment rather than practical value. Sure, there are some games that meet practical needs, but value is not a key UX element driving the usage of the majority of the games that we see today. (For example, check out the top games in the Apple App Store.) The success of games in the marketplace is all about desirability and adoptability.

However, to be playable, a game must be easy to use. Good usability is especially important for casual gamers learning new games. But usability is not nearly as important as adoptability. There are millions of games out there that are competing to get users’ attention, but only an easy-to-adopt game will find its way to prospective users. That is why it is so critical for game developers to think of ways to make the features of their games discoverable. Desirability also overshadows usability. If a game is really, really fun to play, users will tolerate or find ways to overcome poor usability.

Therefore, when designing and developing games, the first thing to do is to identify an engaging, even addictive, game concept. Next, you must implement that concept with an attractive visual design and fun user interactions. You’ll also need to figure out how to distribute the game to reach a large audience. While you must refine the user interface to support ease of use, whenever ease of use is in conflict with desirability, you’ll need to compromise on ease of use.

Figure 2 shows the relative weightings of the four UX elements for a hypothetical game.

Figure 2—Relative weightings of the four UX elements for a game
Relative weightings of the four UX elements for a game

Social Networks: Adoptability and Desirability Are Keys to Success

As an industry, social networking has seen great success during recent years. In addition to the hugely successful Facebook and LinkedIn, we have seen up-and-comers like Path, RunKeeper, and Quora—among many others—all finding their way to the mass market. What defines a social-networking experience, first and foremost, is adoptability. A social network, regardless of its features, content, and usability, has to be very, very easy to discover and sign up for.

Adoptability cannot depend just on marketing. A well-designed social network—for instance, Instagram—can spend very little money on advertising, yet gain a huge user base. The network effect—that is, users acting as the distribution agents for a social network by sending invitations to their friends and even to strangers—is a cornerstone of a social network’s adoptability.

Desirability also plays a critical role. The main reason for people to use social networks is to kill time and have some fun; therefore, the experience has to be very engaging. Activities such as viewing pictures, updating status, and playing social games all contribute to the desirability of a social network.

Social networks do need to have robust usability, so users can easily carry out their tasks. But adoptability and desirability overshadow the role of usability. Social networks that feature so-so usability—notably Facebook and LinkedIn—can still attract hordes of users. I’ve often heard people complaining about being overwhelmed by Facebook’s vast array of features and content and the confusing Timeline, but that didn’t stop them from using it. Why? Simply because all of their friends are on Facebook, so it’s fun to view their pictures and posts. Adoptability and desirability trump usability here.

What about value? Unlike games, social networks do provide substantial value to users. LinkedIn addresses the need for professional networking. RunKeeper lets runners track and share their activities. Twitter satisfies people’s need to instantly distribute and share information. However, the value that social networks provide is typically less important than that of enterprise software. Why is that? Enterprise software is valuable because it addresses essential needs such as submitting timecards and expense reports. In other words, enterprise software provides must-have functionality, while social networks provide nice-to-have convenience.

Figure 3 shows the relative weightings of the four UX elements for a hypothetical social network.

Figure 3—Relative weightings of the four UX elements for a social network
Relative weightings of the four UX elements for a social network

Ecommerce: All Four UX Elements Are Equally Important

With ecommerce, there is a balanced need for all four UX elements. For one thing, successful online stores provide value to their customers by addressing their essential shopping needs: lower prices, convenient access to a broad selection of merchandise, and ease in finding items for sale.

Adoptability is also a critical element in the ecommerce user experience ecosystem. Given that there are so many online retailers, a store that’s easily discoverable has a huge advantage. This is why many merchants do well by continuously improving their search-engine optimization (SEO), through effective marketing, and by setting up an eBay storefront or becoming an Amazon merchant.

Given the vast inventory many online stores have, good usability—that lets users easily navigate product categories, find specific items to purchase, and complete a transaction—is essential to delivering a great user experience. An online store can have a great selection of merchandise at low price points, but without robust usability, users will abandon the site sooner rather than later.

Shopping is not just about fulfilling a practical need. Fun is an intrinsic aspect of shopping. Getting a great deal is fun. Winning an auction is fun. Finding a rare collectible item is fun. This shows the importance of desirability in driving ecommerce usage. Presenting large pictures of items for sale, suggesting good deals, and recommending high-quality products are just a few common ways of making shopping a fun experience.

Figure 4 shows the relative weightings of the four UX elements for a hypothetical ecommerce site.

Figure 4—Relative weightings of the four UX elements for an ecommerce site
Relative weightings of the four UX elements for an ecommerce site

Which UX Elements Are Important? It’s Your Call

The examples I’ve given illustrate how the importance of different UX elements can vary depending on the type of product you’re designing. You can apply the same type of analysis to other product categories. To give a few more brief examples, search engines should focus on value and usability, multimedia sites and consumer electronics products should place a bit more emphasis on desirability, and software that comes with hardware—for example, a wireless router setup site—should feature robust value and usability.

In my examples, I’ve assigned numeric weightings to the four UX elements to make my points clear. But this type of analysis is not really about quantifying the weightings of the UX elements. It’s about understanding what elements are and are not important in driving a great user experience—thinking in relative terms—then applying that knowledge in prioritizing your product design efforts.

So, first, you should realize that the four elements of user experience do not always have the same importance. The deeper your knowledge about a product and its target users, the easier it will be for you to recognize which UX elements are of greater importance for that product. Then, keeping their relative importance in mind, you can prioritize the appropriate UX elements when allocating the resources that are available to you—which are often limited in the real world. By doing this, you can ensure that you develop products that customers will love to use.

In the next part of this series, I’ll discuss UX factor analysis, a systematic approach to evaluating and benchmarking a product by looking through the lens of the four UX elements. 

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Founder of UX Strategized

San Bruno, California, USA

Frank GuoA well-respected UX strategist and architect, Frank has co-authored a book chapter and published more than a dozen professional papers, covering such topics as advertising, Web promotion, eyetracking, persona development, product strategy, and search results. He has also developed a large body of user-research techniques and UI-design guidelines and trained many in applying them. Recently, at the Human-Computer Interaction International conference, Frank received a best-paper award for a paper that he co-authored. Frank is currently providing UX strategy and design consulting services through his firm, UX Strategized.He set up and led user research practice for Barclays’s iShares business and established foundational digital client insights for the firm. His work had a deep impact on iShares’s digital strategies and shaped the award-winning UI designs of iShares’s Web tools and iPhone app. Previously, Frank established eyetracking as a key research method at eBay. He led advertising research there and published a professional paper on best practices for online advertising. He also led design guidelines research that influenced eBay’s UI design best practices and full-cycle user research for the shipping and seller tools, influencing the tools’ overall redesigns. Prior to joining eBay, Frank conducted design-strategy research at Oracle, influencing the UI architecture of its enterprise software suite. Frank obtained a PhD in cognitive psychology from UCLA, where he conducted extensive scientific research on consumer psychology and taught advanced statistics.  Read More

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