This post was originally posted here. Reprinted with permission.
I hate the word “intuitive.” It drives my left-brained mind crazy. Intuition isn’t a math problem or a data structure. It is almost undefinable. But for many years, it has been the Achilles heel of our business. I cringed a couple years ago when I saw a review that called us the “khaki pants” of CRM software, very functional, but not especially sexy.
As the founder and CEO of a software company, I’m often confronted with difficult choices and finding a path through uncharted territory. This isn’t news; people in leadership positions in tech startups have had to do the same thing. But hearing our users say “your software isn’t intuitive enough for me” drove me to the point of madness.
Our company, GreenRope, combines CRM, marketing automation, customer service, and a lot more into one platform. On the surface, the value proposition is clear, without needing to buy lots of software components and link them all together, you can save huge amounts of time and money. Our clients save over 90% total cost of ownership and implementation time.
But the very reason behind our value proposition is the same reason we struggle with providing a good user experience. When someone logs into a program for the first time and they see all those options, they get overwhelmed. A good 30% of trial accounts disappeared after they were given access to the system.
Simple Solutions Don’t Always Work
Now I know what you’re thinking right now, because if you have any experience with software, you’d say things like “don’t let them see everything at once,” or “make them complete a tutorial before they get to access a feature.” All of which is good advice, but didn’t work.
As one with an engineering mind, I have a hard time understanding consumer UX if I’m not looking at data. When I need to do something, I figure it out. The problem we faced was that our users were saying “I don’t get it”, and “I don’t like it”, and not telling us why. Even our graphic artists were stumped.
As frustrating as it was, in retrospect, it makes sense why. UX and UI are often right-brained emotional connections. When we design software, we think functionally, but users don’t only think functionally. They need to feel good. It has to feel “intuitive.”
We hired agencies and experts to look at our platform, and they were ineffective. Answers we found were too high level to be helpful. “Make sure it only takes 2 clicks to do something” works if you have a simple software, but we all know CRM and marketing automation is far from simple if you want to do it right.
Defining the Problem
We had a “problem” problem. We didn’t know what the problem was, so we didn’t know what to fix it. So we looked at competitors and other companies who had user interfaces that people liked. In the midst of that research, we realized how a few well-known companies had solved the problem of cognitive load while using software.
It comes down to bounding the brain and restricting freedom. The human mind doesn’t like to be given too much freedom. We need boundaries. If you don’t give boundaries in software, the user is too free to wander away and lose focus.
Think about your phone and how icons create convenient places to access specific functions. Even when you’re on your desktop, the use of windows keep focused on the task at hand. What we found was something so simple, so obvious and easy to fix, it made us wonder how we missed it all along. I can’t speak for my graphic designers, but I know I at least felt dumb for not seeing it.
Here’s the secret we found. Modern design likes to put content as dark text on white boxes. But if you don’t offset the boxes with a little boundary, people’s eyes lose focus. Their attention wanders around the screen. Without a visual “fence” around what you want them to focus on, the user starts looking at other things.
Too much wandering is a problem when you need to keep the user focused. So we created visual fences to keep the users’ eyes in. All of a sudden, nearly overnight, the perception of our software changed.
That one change, from an open format to a constrained, boxed-in UI, changed the perception of our software, our company, and our sales process. All of a sudden, no one said “your UI looks dated” on demos. Users started to spend more time to learn the platform and harness its power. The frequency of support tickets per user went down, and the number of searches in our online help resources (e.g., our searchable knowledge base and our helpful WalkMe resources) went up. People were spending more time figuring things out on their own.
The important lessons
So why does this matter to the average software company? I learned a few key lessons out of this.
- If you aren’t getting the user adoption or engagement you want, don’t assume you have to throw everything away and start from scratch.
- Try to figure out specifically where people get stuck, but don’t expect to get a lot of detail. Focus on what few details you can get and try to find a pattern.
- Research well-known, successful players in your space and see how they do things.
- Remember that people like to be guided and easily get intimidated and confused by complex software. Try to keep their minds from wandering by limiting what is on the screen at one time, and use subtle boundaries to keep their attention focused.
After 17 years building GreenRope, I finally feel like we have a handle on our UI. I have been repeatedly humbled by other companies who have gotten this part of the business right, and I hope my learning this lesson the hard way helps you with wisdom you can apply to your business.