Rupert Hughes

Ditch Your Principles For Great UX

19 October 2009, Rupert Hughes

Paretos principleThere’s a light-bulb moment in many people’s business lives when the Pareto principle hits home and they realise that, if they’re clever, they can in future get away with only ever doing 80% of a job. Working for a large corporate in a previous life, I used to hear this time and again trotted out in meetings as a reason for not doing more work on a project: “We’ve done enough to target the crucial 20%, so let’s move on to the next thing” or (and a particular favourite of mine) “If you descope your requirements, can you do 80% of them with only 20% of the resource?” (in practice, this usually meant removing the 20% of the requirements that turned a web project from being something that worked into something that was a joy to use).

The usual justification is one of corporate efficiency and cost control and, as often happens when managers focus solely on the internal workings of their company, the needs of the customer –generally the reason the company exists in the first place – get lost. It’s a rare company indeed where the person or team responsible for the user experience has a powerful enough voice to withstand the combined might of those responsible for finance and project management.

Businesses that put UX first
Of course there are some exceptions, and I don’t just mean the obviously design-led ones like Apple. Companies at the sharp end of customer service usually have a much more robust view of the customer experience. If a customer has a poor experience in a restaurant, a well-run establishment will move quickly to rectify the issue with an offer of a free drink, free pudding or, if the experience is truly dreadful, a completely free meal. They’ll then work hard to ensure that the cause of that poor experience won’t happen again.

Good restaurants don’t base their customer’s experience on whether or not their customer falls into that magic 20% who eat lobster and foie gras and drink from the end of the wine list where three or four figures appear after the pound sign. They set out to delight everyone, because they know that their success depends on that and that tonight’s table for 2 could turn into a birthday party for 30 in a couple of months’ time. More to the point, they get instant feedback from the size of the tips, the happy smiling faces and ultimately the same faces coming back through the door time after time.

How website UX can learn from good restaurants
Website UX has access to this kind of feedback too. Online users leave behind them a trail of pages they’ve visited, forms they’ve filled in and purchases they’ve successfully negotiated. All of these things will show up in any decent analytics software and back in my corporate life, I found that a reasoned argument backed up by real stats from the site occasionally won the day against the massed ranks of Finance and Project Management bristling with sharpened Pareto principles.

Where Pareto does help your UX
When you get down to it, great UX actually comes from a reverse application of the Pareto principle. The 20% of your users who generate the 80% of whatever the positive outcome is on your website are almost certainly your loyal users. They’re likely to be the ones responsible for your current success but you probably don’t need to work too hard to convince them to stay with you. A great user experience comes when you start designing websites for the “edge cases”, the people who don’t use the site often or at all. These are the ones where your growth is likely to come from and you’ll find them in the 80%.

This post was written by Rupert Hughes of Firehorse Digital