Online print store usability: “There’s still room for improvement“!

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Frequently simple, inexpensive usability optimization options are not maxed out or are simply ignored and therefore thought about when it’s too late. Enhancements are then not as easy to implement or generate development costs that really hurt. Yet it is so simple to meet users’ expectations, if you know exactly what you need to bear in mind. I asked Kai Hebenstreit, founder and CEO of manymize consulting, about this issue and invited him to take part in an interview.

Bernd Zipper:  The terms ‘user experience’ and ‘usability’ are often mentioned in the same breath. Yet there is a subtle difference between these terms. Can you briefly explain the difference/relationship between the two?

Kai Hebenstreit: Yes, the two terms are indeed often mentioned in the same breath. Action to improve usability is then ascribed to the user experience. That actually leads very quickly to disappointment, because the results do not meet expectations. Basically this involves user behavior, as with every interaction. Either it happens or it doesn’t. The basic objective of the user experience is to generate sufficient motivation in the user’s mind to undertake an action. The objective of usability is to eliminate user interface obstacles to allow this motivation to be converted into sales. Of course that is a very brief and superficial description. This perspective on user experience and usability is derived directly from the findings of well-known behavioral psychologists working at Stanford University and other US institutions. This also allows the two terms and the resultant to-dos to be treated distinctively – projects can be actioned more systematically, more efficiently and more effectively.

Bernd Zipper: What does “usability” mean in this context and what benefits do store operators derive if it is actioned properly?

Kai Hebenstreit: Usability is used to describe the optimization or enhancement of platform usability.  Optimization is a conceptual design process that systematically identifies and eliminates obstacles, which could hinder the user from making use of a digital application. Obstacles are generated in a variety of ways, for example, by product showcases that are too complex, by a failure to factor in the simplest psychological rules of communicating information, or simply by overloading the application with too many functions. Usability ensures that users don’t back out and migrate to other providers. A good comparison would be with a car. Imagine that you have already decided to buy a particular car. You get in and when you tread on the brake pedal the car suddenly accelerates, you are bombarded by an excess of information and you don’t get to actually drive the car, because there are so many functions. There is also a clear trend in the car industry towards optimization. Functions are being concealed or reduced. Systems are taking decision-making off drivers’ hands and reducing cognitive stress. The driver or the user of the vehicle can concentrate fully on their objective – being mobile and perhaps enjoying driving. In an analogous way the objective of store usability optimization is to simplify everything to enable the user to buy what they want to buy quicker. In usability terms, most online stores tend to put obstacles in the customer’s path. Nobody needs thousands of options all at once; instead users need digitally imaged advice and guidance through the buying process. If most online stores were cars, they would be gathering dust somewhere. A lack of usability is often an indication of a lack of care and attention, a failure to understand the user and grossly negligent handling of a proprietary digital distribution channel. What amazes me above all is how business owners with high standards of quality and craftsmanship can make such a mistake, with catastrophic consequences for how customers perceive them.

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Bernd Zipper: Another issue is user experience. What benefits do store operators derive if they attach major importance to providing a decent user experience?

Kai Hebenstreit: User experience and usability are frequently confused. An improvement in usability is equated with an improvement in the emotional experience. But it’s not as simple as that. While usability targets ease/convenience of use, the development of a positive user experience is aimed at motivating the user. Incidentally user experience can also be negative or neutral. At best the offering does not interest the user, at worst the user finds it offensive. A positive user experience is generated when the user’s behavioral psychology-relevant attributes are identified and reflected. Above all we’re talking personally important mid- to long-term goals, the communication of appropriate standards and values as well as a match with the customer’s aesthetic preferences. You usually keep hearing that all that is not so important. Just think about why an iPhone is so sexy and why in the USA Tesla is now streets ahead of the German premium vehicle manufacturers. The user experience entails working on the brand, on its messages and its identity and doing so from the customer’s perspective. Tesla is successful because the brand appeals to those with new aspirations, provides new standards and values and aesthetically speaking is extremely sexy and easy to handle. Motivation cannot be generated if there is no emotional positioning. No motivation means no positive incentive to take action, and no action means no sales. Incidentally confusing user experience and usability often results in stores that are great to use, but where a flawed, inadequate or even negative-looking showcase ultimately means the venture is not the commercial success the operator hoped for. In short you are substitutable, one of the crowd or even a “no way, José” provider in the mind of the customer. User experience design is digital brand management in its purest form. No digital brand management means you are just one of many providers – and then the customer is only motivated by price. And that certainly won’t motivate you. Small businesses above all need to take up a distinctive position, reflect customers’ values and simplify the buying process for freely configurable products. If you don’t do that, modern-day customers are unforgiving.

Bernd Zipper: Can you give us an example of an online store that’s pioneering this approach?

Kai Hebenstreit: Well, I am not really a fan of quoting examples, since objectives/aspirations often differ widely, target audiences with different levels of experience are being appealed to and usability can ultimately only be experienced through usage. There are certainly online stores that are really great to use, but leave me cold in terms of emotional appeal. The user experience in particular can only be rated by your own target audience.

Let me use the example of the vehicle manufacturers again – you can of course recommend copying a BMW in order to be just as successful. But at the end of the day you still don’t have a BMW. And the success you hoped for will also fail to materialize. Why? Because copying individual elements does not create an effective system and above all does not deliver a strong brand and effective market positioning. Copying and imitating online stores is therefore nonsense too. The user is confronted with so many elements, guided to and influenced at so many touchpoints that copying is simply a waste of time and money. Furthermore examples would be very subjective. For example, I am a real fan of Patagonia (www.patagonia.com), not so much because of the online store, much more by how well each of the types of sport thematically pervades the site. Here I feel I am understood, in good hands, entertained and informed. And that’s why I buy there. At the end of the day it’s having detailed knowledge about your customers that’s important, and if need be surveying them and involving them in developing your store.

Quelle: Screenshot Shop Patagonia
Source: Screenshot Shop Patagonia

Small and mid-sized print providers should be asking themselves, who their current A-grade customers are and why they buy from them. And please don’t go down the easiest route and claim that it’s all about price. There is generally much more to it than that. I personally am a fan of “moo.com”. This online store is extremely simple to use and the products are superbly showcased. As a customer with no knowledge of the company’s products I am consistently and logically guided through the range. Shopping at “moo.com” therefore does not feel like wading through a product catalog, where I have to get my own bearings. It has much more of a digital advisory feel to it. The large product portfolio argument will probably be wielded quickly as an excuse why it is not possible to showcase and manage a portfolio properly. In my view that is just another excuse for a lack of positioning and focus, coupled with a must-be-seen-to-be-doing-something way of working. That’s because providers ultimately determine the scope and size of their offerings. You don’t have to get involved in everything and above all provide everything. Imagine, if you will, a small e-retailer suddenly getting it into their head that they can only be competitive, if they offered the same wide range of products as Amazon… No chance. Positioning, focus, excellence and character are what fuel small and mid-sized businesses. This is how, for example, “Outfittery” has successfully gained a foothold in the competitive fashion market without having a single product online. The success formula here is called advice and support from start to finish, coupled with an eCRM system, which stores and provides customer data. Incidentally this is definitely a model employed by print companies. The Danish company, Lasertryk.dk, quoted an impressively remarkable figure at the Online Print Symposium. 70% of users visit standard stores and purchase print products. 30% of new customers undergo a digital and a real advisory process. In the end the customers buy and at the same time qualify to order via the store in future. I believe that the online store business model is not necessarily the right path for every company to go down, in order to provide a positive user and customer experience. But the problems often start with strategy, which then in the end cannot always be solved by optimization. As you can see from the Lasertryk example, strategy foundations for emotional offerings can be laid using the right combination.

Bernd Zipper: Are usability and user experience optimization just issues for the major online store operators or are they also of importance to small stores, to help them remain competitive?

Kai Hebenstreit: Usability is basically a service to the customer. In the same way that I as a retailer need to ensure that my bricks-and-mortar store is neat and tidy, I have to make my website usable. People, who fail to do this, lose potential customers. You may be able to keep your head above water for a certain while by serving digitally less discerning target audiences, but most customers already give short shrift to applications and product offerings where usability is poor. Anything that is too complicated and too time-consuming is weeded out and disappears from the market. But usability is, from my perspective, also a recurring process, which can be measured and evaluated really well in both quantitative and qualitative terms. If a small or mid-sized business already has many users visiting its store, but is only able to convert a small percentage of them into customers, then the entire journey through the store needs to be analyzed to identify obstacles and then optimized. If there are no obstacles, but sales still fail to materialize, then there is a lack of emotional appeal to motivate store visitors. In this case companies first of all have to work on their positioning, their digital brand identity and showcasing their products. And by that I don’t mean replacing product pictures with newer photos. What’s more important is segmenting the entire offering, creating a brand essence and formulating digital brand standards. This is the only way to create a positive user experience and therefore buyer motivation, which helps to push sales. I would even go so far as to claim that user experience is extremely important for smaller providers in particular. Focus, character, values are features that distinguish the smaller providers from the facelessness of the major players. If you don’t convey that online, you have no chance against the sheer media superiority of the major players. And that’s why a systematic approach in terms of strategy technology and online marketing is required. The focus is on the digital customer, who has clear objectives, values, aesthetic preferences and skills. A systematic approach provides the benefit of generating excellence, motivation and empowerment at every digital point of contact and this interaction can be utilized to good effect.

Bernd Zipper: Does all this effort pay dividends at all? Can a direct link between usability and sales be identified?

Kai Hebenstreit: Actual figures are of course difficult to find. In this context everybody plays their cards close to their chests. Just ask yourself whether the major companies invest in their own user experience and usability teams just for fun and out of altruistic motives. Competing for customers takes places at these levels. Playing the game means staying relevant. Ignoring what’s going on means becoming irrelevant to the customer. If I recall the “Lasertryk.dk” presentation at the OPS – its sales curve looked pretty respectable (hockey stick curve) and can essentially be attributed to the fact that the company thinks, conceptually designs and acts from a customer perspective. A key ingredient in the company’s success, says the CEO, is user experience and usability. That’s because both components ultimately result in differentiation between identical products. The question we should actually be asking is not, is the effort worth it, but can one afford not to make all that effort. Successful digital businesses tend to give expensive purchases of state-of-the-art printing technology a miss and invest in customer relationships. Then you may not have a stock of magnificent machinery, but you have customers. And then you outsource production to partners and set about establishing your own capabilities. As far as I recall, that was also a statement made by “Lasertryk’s” CEO. Incidentally “Flyeralarm” focuses its entire corporate organization on customers and the customer experience. Usability and user experience are the building blocks companies use to build successful businesses, particularly where identical products and services are involved.

Source: Presentation by Dr. Christian Maaß of Flyeralarm: „5 hypotheses on the future of the online print industry” – Online Print Symposium 2016
Source: Presentation by Dr. Christian Maaß of Flyeralarm: „5 hypotheses on the future of the online print industry” – Online Print Symposium 2016

Bernd Zipper: Do you have any tips in relation to usability and user experience that you would like to give to “beyond print” readers?

Tips and tricks are nonsense. Ultimately a positive user experience and high degree of usability are the result of a meticulous approach and a rigorous and consistent user focus. That also includes budgets in the millions not being invested in printing presses but in growing a strong digital brand. Changing a little bit here, dabbling a little there – unfortunately that doesn’t work anymore nowadays. My tip for business owners – employ digital specialists, bring a consultant with a substantial psychological understanding of customers’ needs and behavior on board, don’t hesitate to break new ground and provide your colleagues with digital training. Work systematically, all the way from your strategy to your digital offering. Read between the lines at industry events and acknowledge the value and importance of user experience, usability and digital concepts. And finally invest in your positioning and digital brand. Think and act from the perspective of a potential customer.

Founder and CEO of zipcon consulting GmbH, one of the leading consulting companies for the print and media industry in Central Europe. The technology and strategy consultant and his team actively support practical implementation in a wide variety of customer projects. His work involves developing visions, concepts and strategies for the players active in the print production process across a wide range of industries. His areas of expertise include online print, mass customization, strategy and technological assessment for print, and the development of new strategies in the print and media environment. Bernd Zipper is the creator and chairman of Initiative Online Print e.V. and, in addition to his consulting activities, is an author, lecturer and sought-after speaker, orator and moderator. His visionary lectures are regarded worldwide as trend-setting management recommendations for the print and media industry. (Profiles also in Xing, LinkedIn).

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