Microsoft’s revenue from the once-unstoppable Windows franchise is declining. Research In Motion is struggling to hold onto￼ market share despite inventing the “Crackberry.” Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy. Many companies, including producers of revolutionary tech products, are faltering because they don’t understand and aren’t built to respond to consumer behavior in the digital age. In short, these companies failed to prioritize their users.
What’s a user? You’re a user. So are your co-workers, employees, family, and friends. Users are job hunters, social-media commenters, brand fans, potential customers, and existing customers. Everyone who interacts with a business through its website, intranet, mobile app, Facebook page, or any element of its digital footprint is a user—and all together, users are more influential than those relative few who have bought a company’s products and services. Bloggers, “friends,” and user reviewers create a swarm of public opinion that shapes brands and drives sales. Employees, business partners, and job candidates all influence operational performance, and, by extension, brand and sales.
Users come in many different forms, but they all want the same thing: for it to be easy. We all go online to accomplish a finite task, like check sport scores or buy new shoes—in fact, in 2012, 50% of consumer spending is going to be influenced by or transacted through the Internet, according to Forrester Research—and none of us want to spend a second wondering what to click on next. We just want it to be effortless. This expectation—and digital’s influence on consumer spending—will only grow. By the time young people who grew up with the Internet gain mainstream purchasing power, they’ll be even more reliant on digital and will have developed sky-high expectations of usability. If you’re not catering to their needs when they find you, they’ll move on to someone who does.
"It boils down to this: Learn what would improve your users’ lives, then figure out how to give it to them in a way that complements your business goals, budget, and timeline."
Microsoft Windows has been a victim of this type of scenario. Once Apple began championing breakthrough user experiences such as a more intuitive operating system, not to mention the iPod and iPhone, Windows became perceived as difficult and unpleasant to use. Members of IT and procurement departments, those who make the PC or Mac decision for thousands, they’re users too. Eventually they brought their preferences into their purchasing decisions, which is what helped Apple surpass Microsoft in market capitalization last year.
A more foundational aspect of being user first is letting users lead you to the next big thing, and then being nimble enough to follow. If the Windows team had put users first in all decision making, it surely would be playing a larger role in the mobile market. If RIM had put users first, it would have produced a phone that users loved, not had, to use. If Blockbuster did it, it wouldn’t have focused on the traditional rental model, but rather on making it easy for users to see the movies they want.
One decidedly user-centric company is Mint, the online personal-finance service. It was literally founded on the notion of being user-friendly. Aaron Patzer, the founder, had long relied on Intuit’s Quicken and Microsoft Money to manage his money. But he found the programs incredibly tedious. One day instead of spending hours filing gaps in entries, he started to conceptualize personal finance software that would be “so easy to use, people will actually use it,” he’s said. Today Mint.com is free to use, can accurately and reliably match up 85% of all transactions with their appropriate spending categories (a huge improvement over its competitors), and uses advertising in a way that benefits its users. Rather than sell space to flashy banner ads, Mint’s advertising messages are tailored to each user and provide information that saves them money. The startup has been so successful that two years after launch Intuit purchased Mint for $170 million, closed its Quicken Online service, and hired Patzer as vice president and general manager of the company’s personal-finance group.
The businesses, like Mint, that do digital right, enable a user-first strategy to penetrate all levels of strategy and operation. Leadership, at every crossroads, must ask, “Am I making user lives easier?” Admittedly, this is a large undertaking, but it boils down to this: Learn what would improve your users’ lives, then figure out how to give it to them in a way that complements your business goals, budget, and timeline. Then don’t ask for anything in return. When a company’s digital products and services satisfy real user needs, users fall in love, and they will often evangelize it to all of their friends. Become indispensable to your users and customers will follow.
*This article was originally published in Forbes.