Should good usability be a USP for businesses? There was much talk at the start of the year when Confused.com launched a TV ad campaign (which is still running), which focussed on the usability of their new web site. Seeing as how many price comparison sites are vying for market share, the choice seems to be to either specialise in one area (like cardsmart.co.uk, who only deal in credit card comparison), or improve the customer experience of their site, which Confused is doing.
[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="580" caption="Confused.com home page"][/caption]
While it's heartening that usability is seemingly 'in the mainstream', from a customer's point of view, it still seems slightly absurd that a website can hail ease of use as its USP. In an ideal world, usability shouldn't even be a consideration for customers when making a decision, as each site they are considering should be as simple to use as to be unnoticable.
Let's look at an analogy for a bit. Ads for detergents have been saying the same thing for decades; that detergents clean your clothes. There is no reason for them to alter that core message. However, the companies who make detergents are dedicated to the effectiveness of their products. By and large detergents do get your clothes clean, so they publicise it. Companies who make detergents have departments, labs, etc, dedicated to improving the thing upon which they market their product: cleaning clothes. If their product does not perform as customers expect, they will go to a competitor.
However, in terms of web usability, it is less clear-cut. By and large, web usability is a nebulous factor. If a site is difficult to use, but the outcome of using the site is compelling enough for the customer (e.g. finding a better car insurance deal), then customers will persist, rather than immediately moving to a competitor. If a business is to market itself on its ease of use, it should be monitoring its users' activity on the site constantly, and improving it accordingly.
Following through on good intentions
Many a business claims to be in favour of customer experience and usability, but it is doubtful how dedicated to the pursuit of this they are. The outcomes of research can often make difficult reading for businesses, either because of the logistics of implementing the recommended improvements, or that said improvements may affect short-term financial gains, in order to improve longer-term (and less easy to measure) customer experience and brand loyalty. Those with the ability to put customer experience at the centre of their online activity will be able to shout about the ease of use of their site(s), and attract customer interest in the same way Confused has.
It will be interesting to see if Confused.com's use of usability as a marketing tool will encourage other sites to do the same. The more businesses that see this as worthwhile, the more customers will treat good usability as a pre-requisite, rather than a bonus.