Gerry McGovern makes excellent observations on CMS feature simplicity and sustainability of use in his article, "Complexity delivers short-term gain but long-term pain". He bases his argument on the "feature fatigue" phenomenon, cited by researchers at the Smith School of Business, which claims that most people focus on features when buying a product not on usability. The study notes:
"Consumers give more weight to a product's capability benefits and less weight to a product's usability before they use the product than after they use the product-despite the fact that a product's usability strongly influences their satisfaction with the product."
McGovern argues that the same can be said of CMS and that buyers of CMS should beware this tendency to be wowed by features over usability.
Feature fatigue and CMS
The Smith study focusses only on pre-purchase behaviors and perceived satisfaction during use. They say that it's only in the actual use of a technology that you can determine satisfaction. I don't know if the study mentions any data about sustainability, but the article on the Smith study implies that when users of consumer electronics are confronted with complex, unfriendly technologies they may eventually abandon them, as they say "chucking it in frustration".
I'm a believer that satisfaction is a good determining factor when it comes to sustainability and that another statement would also be true. If users are confronted with an easy-to-use technology, they will be more likely to continue to use it. You'd have to prove that, of course and I don't know if it follows logic to simply say that since unusable technology has one effect, that usable technology should have the opposite effect. But it seems obvious. I would go further to say that an even worse outcome is that if a given technology is necessary for running your business and that technology perceived as a user-hostile experience, that it will interrupt the normal flow of one's work and slow the company down.
Putting the feature fatigue concept in the context of enterprise CMS seems a logical analogy. However, there are variables in corporate environments that may make it difficult to make a clean-cut transition out of existing systems unless there is understanding from the top of what pains users lower down the chain. The concept of user satisficing—the tendency to select the first option given that can work for the situation rather than the "optimal" solution—is one phenomenon that contributes to the complex issue of use and sustainability. People make do with what they have.
That leads me to wonder what the path to change is when people have become accustomed to using complex software that is difficult to use? What factors exist in this situation? Are people on the low-end able to communicate upwards what they experience in terms of dissatisfaction? Is that information received? Can it be used to evaluate current technologies as successes or failures in supporting sustainable information management processes?
It may seem difficult to change in the direction of usability and satisfaction when you've invested heavily in technologies that are the cause of your pain. Moving away from a family of products may feel disruptive if bulk licenses are already paid for and staffed to support those specific technologies. But the bottom line for decision makers is that the payoff comes in business intelligence, the ability to make sound decisions based on experience. That past and ongoing experience is retrievable because your employees capture it in an easy to use CMS. Let's look at a few dimensions affected by ease of use to illustrate why it's an important element in affecting a company's bottom line.
- Ease of use leads to satisfaction with CMS and sustained use
- Sustainability leads to a richer information repository (CMS)
- Rich information repositories lead to more meaningful information mining
- Rich information mining leads to more informed decision making
- Better decision making leads to fewer dollars lost and more business opportunities
In the end, it's about money. If you believe that ease of use leads to making more money, you start to take it seriously. We need to see some studies demonstrate that. But what we're talking about here in terms of actions is simply ensuring the satisfaction of your key asset, your knowledge workers. To put it simply, if employees are happy to keep adding reusable knowledge to the business, the business benefits in explicit terms that may be traced back to the information capture. If you want to prove it, it would seem that if you can capture longitudinal data to compare the flow of knowledge into the CMS with ease of use and satisfaction dimensions, then you can provide some insight into return on investment.
Evangelizing simplicity in the enterprise (the software user's story)
So the question for corporate decision makers feeling the pain of complex and unusable technology becomes, "how do we sell our company on the idea of usability as a strategic move?" If the revolution can't happen from below, the vision has to come from above. But the people above need to be convinced through the experience. Sometimes, the perfect pitch can go nowhere without concrete examples. The way you sell it is by demonstrating value through use.
First, point out success stories. If you read and agree with 37 Signals' popular ebook "Getting Real" then you don't need to be convinced that simplicity and usability can equal dollars. They focus on simplicity because it ensures satisfaction in 95% (or some high number like that) of their customers. That 95% uses 37 Signals' customers comes to 37 Signals because the specific solutions they provide are the antithesis of what they've used for processes like project management and collaboration. They want small, simple and efficient and they leave satisfied that they can get in, do what they need to do to collaborate or organize their stuff and get back to work. How's that for a productivity pitch?
Second, prove the concept. Set up real world demonstrations. Put it before people and show them how it works. Remove obstacles and make it easy. Provide an open testing period, do a super-short training screencast or cheat sheet and then let your staff have at it. You can set up pre-determined areas for activity and open up the system for personal information management. This way, users determine it's usefulness. But most importantly, they get to try it out and experience an environment that makes their information management process simpler and more satisfying.
I've been privy to demonstrations where vendors allow some testers to use their software beta in order to build up some excitement around their software's release. Vendors get potential customers to start experiencing their sofware ahead of releasing. And if they create an environment of open communication they also get to establish a relationship with their customers. Other benefits include word of mouth recommendations, feedback on improvements,and if their software is well received, better assurance of its use. All of this before they even release the software commercially. It should go without saying that a vendor would benefit greatly from beta tests.
As a CMS customer, a company could follow this lead and do the same thing, testing vendor software in an enterprise environment. Set up a private testing period for a select set of users and create an open environment of communication around it. Let the feedback stream in and use it to build momentum around the technology. If it's received as a simpler, more usable way of doing business, you're on the right track. Use the feedback to improve how it integrates with your processes. Use that feedback to get better usability improvements out of your vendor. When you're happy that your test users are satisfied with the experience, release it to the enterprise and keep the communication environment open.
Using simplicity as a design strategy (the vendor's story)
And how do you employ usability as a strategic factor if you are a software vendor? First, believe that ease of use should lead to satisfication with your product, and that usability in turn leads loyalty to the company in terms of renewals. I hate to sound like a Mac Fanboy, but the Macintosh Operating System is proof of that. Google search may be proof of that as well.
Consider that usabilty and simplicity is one of the key factors making weblogs attractive as replacements for complex CMS in the first place. It's the main reason that many corporates took the leap and tried this new thing, blogs as the 99 cent KM solution. Many were likely comparing the simplicty of blogs to failed KM solutions they bought. Use that knowledge to your advantage. Simplify your experience to show customers a better way.
When the software you have developed has evolved over time into a more and more complex environment, are you out of luck? Of course not. You step back, take a look at the customer's experience of using the software -- everything it evokes as they use it. Find ways to make it easier. Simplify where you can. Remove obstacles. Do whatever you can to take the pain away. Guage satisfaction constantly by listening to feedback and factor it back into improving the user experience with your software.
It may not happen over night, but making your software usable is a worthwhile goal. Overall, it's not impossible to change in the direction of simplicity. More concrete advice is to break the process down into smaller steps.
- Cement your strategy with user experience and usability as a keystone.
- Understand your users by creating personas that describe who your users are and what their goals are. Focus design on them (persona-based user-centered design).
- Describe the use cases that apply to personas.
- Describe specific scenarios for each use case above. What types of actions would they take with your software in order to achieve goals?
- Prescribe improvements to the user experience that match with the expectations found in the use case scenarios. Suggesting flow and interaction improvements. Suggest usability improvements to elements of your user interface.
- Validate the implementations and test against real people.
- Use the feedback to validate information about the design process you just underwent. Iterate.
That's all there is to it! Well, no, there is a lot more to it, but this is a start.
Food for thought
The Smith study and McGovern's article should be enough food for thought. It's our job as users and makers of software to just understand that satisfaction can be improved when software, however complex or simple in features, is easier to use.
Applying the Smith study's consumer electronics research is just a start I think. It would be valuable if someone did longitudinal studies that track satisfaction and abandonment or sustained use in other areas, especially with regard to personal and enterprise productivity and content management software.