If it's hard to use, it's hard to sell

Last week, I listened to a panel of IT professionals share their experience with software-as-a-service (SaaS) and cloud solutions. In part, they confirmed what I've heard from other IT executives: "We expect performance, we expect security, we expect fail-over." (See Rule 4 in the "Ten Essentials of SaaS Solution Marketing.")

I was surprised, though, to hear from these IT professionals about another concern: usability. After all, these folks have somehow managed to endure frighteningly off-putting user interfaces for quite awhile. SAP ERP screens are not for the faint of heart.

The IT folk's attention to usability is driven not so much from a new-found sensitivity to graphics and color. Instead, it derives from a greater appreciation for the needs of their users. They don't want to deploy applications that confuse, frustrate, and torture users.

Why IT now cares about usability

The IT professionals on the panel have found that the SaaS solutions they've acquired tend to be more widely deployed within their organizations. They're not confined to highly-trained, dedicated users with a high threshold for pain. Instead these solutions for expense reporting, recruiting, asset tracking, or sales compensation management, for example, are used broadly, not by experts and not on a daily basis.

What that means is that applications with inscrutable interfaces that frustrate non-experts cause problems for IT professionals. And even though the application wasn't built by the in-house IT group, it doesn't run in their data center, and they didn't have anything to do with the interface design, IT always gets the blame. It goes with the territory. As a CIO colleague explained to me once,"People never call me to say 'Thanks, Jamie, the email is running flawlessly today.' I only hear from them when something's broken. This is the worst job in the company."

Not only do the IT folks get an ear-load of grief from users who complain that "IT is deliberately wasting our time with this awful system," but they also bear the burden of supporting these end-users. Through a help desk or training, they spend money on to help users navigate through the application.

Lessons for SaaS providers

There are a few lessons in here for SaaS providers:
  • A poorly designed user experience will make it more difficult for you to market and sell your solution. Propping it up with specialized training for dedicated users isn't a workable solution for the broadly-deployed applications. The IT professionals won't let you get away with it.
  • A poor user interface will make it harder to renew customers. Even if you succeeded in getting an initial deployment into the organization, it will be difficult to retain those frustrated users, never mind adding new ones, if the product is painful to use.
  • A badly designed application is expensive to support. If it's the internal IT professionals who take on the support role, they'll be unhappy. You're costing them money and grief. If it's you, the vendor, who provides the support, it will cost you money... though the internal IT people will still get the grief.
Marketing professionals, fixated as we are on messages, lead generation and sales enablement tools, sometimes pay less attention to product features and functions than we ought to. Our success with SaaS solutions, however, will increasingly depend on an easy-to-navigate and delightful-to-work-with user experience. If IT professionals are paying attention to what a product looks like, marketing should too.