Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Andy Mura, Head of Marketing at Userlane.
We are spoiled software users!
Just a few years ago, using an application typically involved purchasing a licence, installing the application directly on a device from a CD or DVD, going through an extensive and boring setup process, reading some pdf manuals, and then slowly trying to understand how to get the best out of the purchase while often being forced to enter long strings of text to customize the solution.
Nowadays, we expect immediate access to products and services from anywhere and at any time. Portability across different devices is paramount together with personalization, accessibility, speed, and simplicity.
For example, we now sit in the car and use a voice prompt to immediately play our favorite song on Spotify. We expect Netflix to recommend a great movie while having a TV dinner with the family. We require search engines and ecommerce platforms to predict our intentions.
Software users are no longer looking for products but direct solutions and outcomes.
It’s high noon in the subscription economy, and we are witnessing a paradigm shift in a user experience that revolves around the fact that customers are no longer just users but subscribers.
A subscription-based business aims to create memorable experiences that foster long-term relationships by providing remarkable in-product experiences.
But what are the common characteristics that lead to a great user experience (UX)? And what is the role of user guidance in creating this great user experience?
Let’s define some basic criteria based on best practices and positive examples to find out.
A Good In-Product UX Is Not an Add-On
The first principle we need to keep in mind is that your user experience is part of the original framework of your product. Although there are things you can do to patch problematic situations, the underlying UX is a basic component you design with the product itself.
A great UX is not connected to a plain user interface but to well-thought out user flows at different stages of the customer journey, from signup to onboarding, first results, advanced operations, customization, support, account management, integrations … the list goes on.
Every aspect of the journey needs to be mapped for different user personas based on their intent, goals, and requirements. The target is to remove every hurdle and create frictionless processes within the product for every user. And, needless to say, testing is essential to define desired outcomes and best process flows.
Think of solutions that have been in the market for a while. I’m pretty sure you can come up with a long list of frustrating processes even in the latest releases.
The problem is connected to legacy issues that prevent companies from completely disrupting their flows. Different user segments have different expectations and long-time users tend to dislike dramatic changes.
Older products weren’t optimized for user experience. It seems strange, but the whole concept of limiting the number of actions and pushing for simplicity, accessibility, and immediate value is relatively new and mostly connected to the sheer amount of new SaaS applications that come out on a daily basis.
New products have the unique opportunity to start from scratch and approach usability from an entirely new angle. That’s why Sketch is usually praised for having a better UX in comparison to Adobe and the same seems to be true when comparing GSuite to Microsoft Office.
A great user experience is an intrinsic characteristic of the original product design which seldom can be radically optimized at a later stage.
Elements of a Great Product Experience Connected to Usability
A good user experience is connected to product value, outcomes, and usability.
When we talk about value and performance, there are different aspects we need to consider.
1. Product Fit
Product fit, for example, refers to features. The product needs to include all the features that are necessary to achieve specific goals without overwhelming users with unnecessary functions.
The main idea is segmenting users based on their desired outcome. For example: Providing access to specific functionality only to advanced users who would truly benefit from them and allowing new users to be gradually exposed to complexity through scaffolding.
Some products are simplified versions of existing solutions, such as Canva or Bannersnack for designers and marketers. Product fit is an underlying characteristic of such products based on the fact that they address a single, very specific user persona.
Other solutions can be used by both rookies and experts. Feature adoption, in this case, becomes a problem when it comes to new users. The goal here is to give them easy access to basic features and let them decide whether or not they’ll need to dig a little deeper. More on this topic soon when we talk about guidance and accessibility.
It’s important that you make sure that advanced functionalities don’t hinder a smooth user experience for new users and casual users.
2. Intuitive Processes
Learnability and predictability are also elements that characterize a solid user experience.
The lack of standards in the past introduced a long series of confusing elements and processes. SaaS solutions are based on the same technology. Specific coding standards and libraries are responsible for creating a more homogenous experience based on familiarity.
Even though users with different backgrounds might still struggle with specific UI elements and processes, the majority of heavy users are quite good at recognizing common elements and quickly finding their way.
Familiarity is a key component that leads to learnability and predictability. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel if the majority of applications already follow well-established practices and adopt a specific mechanism to lead users to accomplish a specific task. Always choose familiarity over funky solutions, no matter how cool you think your product is!
And this involves your nomenclature in your micro copy (why do I need to click on “orders” in Ahrefs when looking for invoices?), location (why are invoices listed under ‘Settings’ in Buffer when most of the other solutions include this section under ‘Account’?), or user interface elements (menus, sidebars…)
3. Information Structure
Usability is also connected to choice and information density. Great applications don’t provide options but direct solutions.
Looking at a dashboard with 30 different options is overwhelming. Users don’t want to know what they could potentially do, they want to accomplish a specific goal as quickly as possible.
Think of it as if you were comparing Google to Wolframalpha. In Google (search engine) you type a query and get a list of links that should provide you with a relevant answer. In Wolframalpha (answer engine), you type a query and get an answer directly (something that Google is also exploring and optimizing as well).
Simple user flows are based on intent, adequate information density, and information scent (functional clues) tailored to users and their map of desired outcomes.
As seen in the examples above, we’re okay with delegating choice to intelligent systems. We love the fact that we can simply tell our car that we’re cold and it automatically sets the temperature to 70° F or that we can tell our phone we feel like Indian food to get immediate directions to the closest restaurant.
At the same time, though, an important aspect of a product experience is control.
Users need to be given the option to override automation at any point and make their own decisions. This concept is linked to self-determination theory that leads to motivation and engagement.
Again, Google is a great example in this case. You can customize Google to make the best decisions for you (from what time you need to leave to get to work and what route to take to what new bars you should try in town based on your past reviews), but you can always refine your preferences or turn off intelligent suggestions altogether.
5. Safety and Stability
Control is also connected to safety and stability. When we talk about product value and experience, we don’t talk about safety and stability in IT terms (preventing attacks, code, uptime…). We sometimes refer to these terms to define a sense of security that the system provides when it comes to processes, such as the fact that the application provides a safe environment for operations that include undo options, prevention from drastic mistakes, and an intuitive progress overview and cues that emphasize important actions.
For example, ecommerce platforms often show the number of steps that lead to the actual purchase (actual payment transaction). Every step can be undone and information can be adjusted before actually being reminded of the fact we’re about to place an order.
6. Customization and Integrations
As mentioned at the very beginning of this article, personalization is a key element of modern user experience design. We want products to adapt to our needs, not to adapt our needs to product functionality.
And this includes the topic of accessibility, portability, and integrations.
A product needs to become an organic component of the daily ecosystem in which it operates to integrate with the existing daily routine while forming new habits.
A personalized product flow that revolves around mapped outcomes for different user segments and integrates with other solutions leads to meaningful experiences.
Meaningfulness is a vital component of a great product experience.
Every action needs to be connected to a sense of purpose and event. Think of the positive reinforcement mechanism applications use to reward engagement. The objective here is limiting the amount of required actions that lead to value.
Frustration is often connected to lack of purpose. UX design should always take purpose into account and include cues and reminders that point users to their goals.
The focus is always on results, not on the process itself. You don’t care if your cab driver takes Broadway instead of 7th Avenue to get to Times Square as long as you get there in time to see Aladdin at the New Amsterdam Theater!
8. Product Feedback
Product feedback is also an important characteristic of a smooth experience as users need to connect specific actions to their effects. Uncertainty is the main enemy of a good product experience.
Users need to have immediate clues that show the effect of specific options.
In the real world, buttons (take, for example, in an elevator panel) signal their status with position, lights, or sounds.
Modern cars use the dashboard screen to confirm the position of the light or windshield wiper toggle switch. That’s great feedback, as the position is often unclear by looking at the stalks.
Every action needs to be confirmed with extremely clear visual clues to eliminate uncertainty in software applications as well.
Every element can be used to provide feedback and guide users to eliminate uncertainty, including empty states.
9. Rapid Onboarding and Immediate Product Performance
Fast onboarding means immediate product value. A powerful user experience is influenced by the onboarding process as this is the first touch point a user has with a solution.
The user onboarding process needs to take place in the product itself and users need to be taken by the hand through the discovery journey with interactive checklists and well-designed flows that quickly lead to value.
A great user onboarding experience generates loyal customers. A terrible user onboarding experience is hard to recover from. User engagement, activation, and adoption are strictly connected to the onboarding process that goes from sign up to desired outcomes.
Designing a Great In-Product Experience
Your product experience is a company-wide initiative. As a member of a product management team, you might be in charge of coordinating execution, but the overall in-product experience design derives from a cross-functional effort that involves sales, marketing, and customer success.
Every unit can provide precious information regarding user personas, their needs, pains, and desired outcomes through direct or indirect observation.
Bringing together key members of each unit to re-evaluate your user personas and their journeys is a key element that leads to a 360-degree approach that hinges on customer-centricity.
And, I need to emphasize one more time that testing, monitoring, and surveying are mandatory steps that allow you to A/B test ideas, optimize journeys, and boost retention.
Accessibility and Interactive Guidance
When it comes to software adoption, interactive guidance is a means to broaden accessibility by allowing different user segments to achieve individual goals with personalized journeys that can also take place across different platforms and applications.
A digital adoption platform provides software with on-screen interactive guidance and electronic performance support to guide users in real time while they accomplish tasks in applications.
Such platforms add a guidance layer on top of other software solutions to speed up the onboarding process, quickly lead users to value, boost self-sufficiency and self-help, streamline support, and boost feature adoption and engagement.
The aim is to reach a very broad spectrum of users with different expectations and level of proficiency to turn them all into experts without forcing them to abandon the application to look for support or tutorials.
Interactive guidance is a great way to enhance and monitor in-product user experience, but important to note, it can’t solve underlying issues of a bad UX design. A good user experience derives from careful design choices which shape in-product processes. As such, it can’t be replaced by simply adding interactive guidance.
That’s why such digital adoption platforms are very effective in combination with extraordinary products with a well-designed UI and UX, especially when it comes to complex applications that address multiple use cases and serve different purposes like a CRM system, an ERP solution, or basically any modern B2B application.
Guidance is a major aspect of
A digital adoption platform can take your user experience to a new level by automating flows, providing users with immediate solutions instead of choices, and allowing anybody to interact with the most advanced features without uncertainty or frustration.
That’s why so many solutions nowadays implement electronic performance support at different stages of the customer journey (from discovery to onboarding, support…).
However, it must be clear that interactive walkthroughs aren’t the magic pill that solves all the problems connected to usability, performance, and engagement.
Everything starts with the users and their needs.
This is just a brief overview of the basic elements of a great in-product experience. There are many more aspects that can be discussed, but to dig deeper into all the elements, this post would need to turn into a book!
The main takeaway should be that each phase of the user journey needs to be analyzed and optimized separately while still keeping an eye on unity and consistency (two more concepts we actually haven’t discussed but that are crucial in UX design).
Every process needs to be mapped and designed to lead different user groups to their desired outcome without any friction and uncertainty.
According to a study carried out by TrustRadius, users trust their own firsthand in-software experience more than referrals when it comes to choosing and committing to a software solution.
Product adoption is therefore directly linked to user experience and that’s why it’s so important to invest time and resources in getting it right from the very beginning.
Releasing new features on a weekly basis might seem like a good way to entice new users and retain existing customers. Spending time researching and testing, on the other hand, is often perceived as a “cost” in terms of productivity.
But, in the long run, the product that offers a better UX always wins and not the one that offers more and more features.
Therefore, it’s often advisable to slow down a little bit and focus more on optimizing your UX design.
As mentioned, the subscription-based economy is about building long-term relationships and in order to get there, user-centricity simply can’t be a buzzword on your landing page but a value you use to evaluate all your product choices.
Meet Andy Mura
Andy Mura is an inbound marketer, SaaS enthusiast, and speaker. Before joining Userlane as Head of Marketing, he initiated and founded different tech projects and companies in sectors like e-commerce, content marketing, and recruiting platforms. Check more of his articles here.