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How usability lets your users engage more

Alex Vandoren

A woman frustrated in front of a laptop

Photo by Yan

87% of the population in developed countries is connected to the Internet. We truly live in a digital age where we are surrounded by devices connected to the whole world. Engaging with technology enables us to be more productive, communicate with others, gather information, and even relax. However, applications are useless if we cannot figure them out. Whether you are selling toys to new parents online through a webshop or providing your employees with a platform to manage customers’ financial data, your digital solution will sabotage your company if it is not user-friendly. In this article, we will explain how an investment in usability leads to more engagement.

Usability allows the good type of engagement

As obvious as it may sound, users of your applications are (in 95% of the cases) actual human beings. Those humans need to be able to perform tasks and achieve their goals. They do this by using cognitive abilities plus emotions, motivations, and responsibilities. However, these human capabilities are limited. It does not matter how fancy or how much work has been involved in the creation of your application: if earthlings (or at least your target audience) cannot understand or use your software products, users will stop (or won’t even start) using them.

I can still remember my experiences with logging in to a Belgian electronic ID card reader: trying different browsers, installing the same software 89 times, restarting my computer 23 times, getting errors I did not understand, and eventually giving up (based on an ethnographic study with N=1, the participants consisting of me). Looking back, I have spent more time trying to get it to work than actually using the services provided by the government. As a note, the last time I tried logging in with my eID was in 2020 and it was still not as easy as I would have hoped.

Luckily, itsme has been a better alternative for logging into Belgian governmental platforms for a while now. While keeping the required European laws in mind regarding authentication and security, the application provides a more straightforward method to prove your own identity. It might be worth knowing that the electronic identity card with the traditional eID card reader was birthed before the arrival of the smartphone era; many technological possibilities didn’t exist at that time, and there has been more time for research since then.

No abundant training or “support”

In my experience, companies behind unnecessarily confusing software actually believe their users should adapt to the software instead of the other way around. Some of my biggest pet peeves are (badly recorded) presentations about how to use an application to perform a simple task like filling out a form or finding some piece of information. Of course, it is okay (and even encouraged) to provide help and documentation for your users, in case they ever get lost. However, it is not okay to let me come to your required onboarding event to give a two-hour-long walkthrough of your poorly designed platform and still let me struggle thereafter through trial and error. This is a case of “fix the symptoms,” while the system is the one that needs fixing. If you are considering training your users to stop pressing the wrong buttons, you probably need to stop your buttons from being confusing in the first place.

Without revealing the frustrating interface I mentioned above, I will just use the example of buying a Belgian train ticket at a vending machine. Before I start explaining, I first would like to thank Belgian railway station NMBS who did not force me to follow a presentation before I could buy a train ticket. I understand that running a train company sounds easier said than done and that with a lot happening behind the screens (e.g., customer support, construction works, ensuring COVID regulations, etc). I’m happy that I have often successfully traveled safely from a small village in Limburg. Despite that, I would like to touch on one aspect of buying tickets at a vending machine.

Vending machines for train tickets in Belgium

Vending machines for train tickets in Belgium — Photo by Bert76

I believe that public transit should be accessible for all. Purchasing a ticket is a task that needs to be easy for everyone. I have witnessed moments where (assumed) non-frequent or beginning travelers of all ages were struggling to buy a ticket in a station where they could not resort to a staffed ticketing office. NMBS provides several videos that show you how to purchase different kinds of tickets on its website. Searching for online help might not be the first action you consider if you are standing outside, under pressure, because you are not succeeding in using the interface of the vending machine while people are waiting behind you and your train will arrive in ten minutes and you still have to walk to the platform and you are on the lookout for pickpockets. The experience of traveling by train may be ruined before it even started. I highly suspect that the company created the videos because they know buyers have had some difficulties buying a ticket, which is a strong indicator that NMBS’s vending machine interface requires some adjustments.

Satisfied users

Just as non-digital objects fulfill goals (such as scissors or pizza), users will be happy about the applications they use if they allow them to succeed in what they are attempting. Imagine you need to construct your cutting tool before you can wrap presents, or you need to be present at a lengthy presentation about consuming takeaway food and are still figuring out how to do so afterward — you would become frustrated and just resort to normal scissors and buy your food somewhere… normal. Making digital products as easy-to-use as possible allows users to engage more because they can actually benefit from them. The users keep engaging because they feel accomplished, believe the application is useful and not frustrating to use.

Even though usability may just be “a part” of a whole system, it has a significant impact on its users and may cause them to engage more with the application itself than with unnecessary frustrations or external help (for example, support). Instead of forcing users to fight with digital products, we should allow them to live peacefully together in a non-frustrating digital age.

If you need help with setting up the right design and product culture, or you have a complex problem that needs solving, Smooth Sailing will save your soul!

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