Usability and ROI: The Great Debate

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Usability issues have crept into Web and software application development and with them comes the question of ROI. Does usability equate to higher profits? The great debate continues.

Consider this true story. As product manager flew overseas to demonstrate his ground-breaking software application to an executive team in a multi-billion dollar company. Halfway into his demonstration, he got lost in the application’s interface and could not navigate his way out. The executives dismissed him, with an admonition to go back and fix his problems.

For years, interface gurus have hotly debated the value of an application interface in term of return on investment. How much influence does usability have on an application’s ROI? Can a great interface possibly justify its expense? The answer is yes. Forward-thinking companies are finally realizing the importance of usability. “Usability is one of our secret weapons,” says a representative from The fact that usability consistently produces positive results will not be a secret much longer. (

A case in point: American Eagle Outfitters launched a redesigned, more user-centered Web site in March, 2001, and showed a 53.6% increase in sales the next month. Can that increase be directly attributed to usability? Usability research is limited in its ability to predict ROI simply because there are too many variables, leaving decision-makers skeptical of usability expenses.

Usability guru Jakob Nielsen argues that starting with usability is key to increasing ROI. He estimates that gathering usability data early in the development process is ten times more effective than late usability data. “It's 100 times cheaper to make a change before any code has been written than it is to wait until after the implementation is complete,” he states, but admits that such estimates do not equate to a standard ROI. “The two parameters are measured in different units,” he argues, “Project cost is measured in money, and usability is measured in increased use, more efficient use, or high user satisfaction.”

Despite the paucity of strong evidence of ROI linked to usability, there is still a case to be made. Unusable products are unacceptable in the consumer-driven marketplace. “E-businessmen and women don’t always understand how all the aesthetic and technical aspects of a Web site must revolve first and foremost around the consumer, because without them, there would be no business,” reminds Richard Feinberg, Professor of Retail Management at Purdue University.

Jane Black notes that consumers are expecting exceptional usability because they’ve seen the potential available with “a high-powered PC and some imagination.” Not to mention Arthur Andersen’s study which revealed that 83% of Internet users would likely leave a Web site that required too many clicks to get to what they were looking for.

This extends to internal operations as well as e-commerce. A client of Brook Group, LTD, had the design firm create a more usable intranet. The old intranet made everyday tasks difficult and time-consuming. Since Brook Group employs usability experts focusing on customer experience design, the resulting application was not only highly usable, but highly profitable as well. After months of use, the client reported an increase in productivity and a corresponding decrease in support costs. Employees performed daily tasks faster and more efficiently, and some reported greater job satisfaction because of the improvements. The system was so easy to use that training time was cut in half, all of which results in monetary savings.

So how does a company integrate usability into the development process? Usability is both an art and a science. It requires a cross-functional team: trained usability professionals focus on strategic as well as technical issues. To maximize the potential benefits, consider usability at the outset, test extensively and incorporate developmental checks and balances to maintain the business objectives.

ROI is the primary concern for many companies, and many are realizing that there is a direct correlation between the usability of their Web sites and applications, and customer satisfaction levels. With the increase in user sophistication, usability has become a critical part of the design and development phase. It is no longer an additional expense, but rather an integral part of the entire budget. Companies are developing new applications at lightning speed, but it’s the “usable” ones that leave the shelves.

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About Brook Group

Brook Group, LTD ( is a strategic Customer Experience Design firm near Washington, DC, specializing in Web design, content management, and application usability engineering. Brook Group provides information architecture and user experience solutions that help organizations streamline internal efficiencies and increase market share. Established in 1983, the firm has earned its impressive reputation with over 20 years of innovating customized communications and Web "experienceware" solutions that help businesses, non-profits and federal clients reduce costs and increase productivity. Brook Group also provides best of breed branding, Search Engine Optimization and Internet marketing.

Major Clients include: America Online, VeriSign, The Executive Office of the President of the United States and the White House Office of Management and Budget.


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Kari White
Brook Group
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