You enter an office for the first time. The first thing that greets you is the view of a glowering receptionist, slumped deep into their chair and chewing gum brashly. You take a few hesitant steps towards the front desk. The receptionist looks at you, tuts, and raises a surly eyebrow. How do you feel about continuing?
Now, let us say you begin a trial of a new piece of office software. You open the application for the first time, with the expectation of using it right away. Instead, you are presented with a mess of buttons and a sprawling, dense navigation that leaves you overwhelmed. How do you feel about continuing?
The Cranky Receptionist
Offline, a cranky receptionist is a direct experience affront. In the digital world, that cranky receptionist takes shape in the form of a bad user interface (UI). Both are off-putting, both are uninviting, and both are thoroughly unexpected. Unfortunately, both leave a bad taste that lasts.
The impact of that initial unpleasantness is jarring, sometimes so much so that the journey ends there. And while a receptionist may yet be able to salvage the situation with a hasty smile or joke, there is no such intervention when a user hits (x) on your app.
The Fateful First Impression
Digital first impressions can be deadly. A study from 2004 found that first impressions are 94% design-related. In a tech scene where consumers have since come to expect slick, intuitive products, those design-related first impressions are even more important today.
Just look at the digital landscape we are in. The days of the instruction manual are long gone. The web has been tamed and standardised. Apps are downloaded in a click; products need no explanation and users have no tolerance for complexity. If consumers do not ‘get’ your product right away, they are not likely to persevere. For websites, products, and apps alike, a bad first impression can often be the last one.
A Grunt Rather than a Greeting
The first opening click of a new product – that fateful first impression, should be inviting. A clean, clear interface should surface, easing the user into the tech fluidly and with confidence. It is the digital equivalent of walking into a building and seeing a smiling receptionist. A friendly UI welcomes the user through the door of your app and settles them in right away.
A bad user interface is like getting a grunt instead of a greeting. When presented with the unpleasant surprise of an antiquated or hectic UI, the user stumbles and starts feeling both distaste and distrust.
Your UI is Your Brand
This is not just a small starting hiccough. For the end user, your interface is your brand. It is how they interact with your product; their chief touch point with your company. Implicitly but intrinsically, then, your user interface is linked with the calibre of your product or service.
In fact, Stanford research shows that 75% of users make judgments about a company’s credibility based on design. A bad UI is a red flag. Think of it this way: the user interface is a visual indicator of your commitment to clarity. At a glance, it tells the user how much you have invested in their experience. If you have not invested in them, you give little reason for them to invest in you.
The Deeper Usability Issue
It is all too easy to write off judgements that are based only on an interface as shallow ones. What does it matter if the UI is a little ugly if the technology behind it performs flawlessly?
Well, it matters a lot. Judging a product or app by its user interface is not like judging a book by its cover – it is like judging a book by its readability. If the content is unnavigable and convolute, the validity of its message is of little value to the struggling reader.
The same applies to a UI. While the functionality of a piece of software is critical, this functionality ultimately becomes redundant if users fail to grasp the interface they are dependant on for access. Simply put, your UI determines the usability, and therefore the uptake, of your product.
An Attitude Problem
Poor usability fosters mistrust about your brand. Even if your application is not always crashing or throwing up error messages, a bad UI projects a bad attitude impression.
Let us return to the receptionist. Their hostile welcome has instantly rubbed a bad attitude off on the guest. If the guest proceeds at all, they do so reluctantly, with former enthusiasm wiped out and disapproval in its place. In short, the company attitude problem has turned into a customer attitude problem.
Well, that is the knee-jerk kind of reaction caused by a substandard user interface. When it comes to digital, bad design creates a bad mindset towards your brand. 88% of online consumers are less likely to return to a site after a bad experience, and 70% of projects fail due to lack of user acceptance.
To simplify right down to the core: bad UI puts users in a bad mood.
Bottom Line Impact
It should go without saying: putting users off your product is not a good idea for your bottom line. Despite that, many companies still scrimp on design. All too often, the UI is an afterthought; a hastily thrown together postscript that has been relegated behind back-end functionality.
But optimising UI later down the line is not as straightforward as many might imagine. A study examining the impact of first impressions found that an initial negative experience can cause the user to have a prejudice against a brand for years. After all, why should a user accept a poor UI when competing tech is so readily available elsewhere?
Spending just 10% of a development budget on usability can improve conversion rates by 83%, according to user experience research from the Nielsen Norman Group. For the company, designing invisible usability into a product results in very real, and very visible, ROI.
Invisible usability is all about ease and effortlessness. In the physical world, for example, you would train a receptionist to eliminate all friction when getting guests through the door.
Their posture would be impeccable: open, upright, and relaxed. Their manner would be similarly engaging: warm, professional, and efficient. Their language would be clear, their attire would be smart, and their face would wear a smile. The receptionist, in short, would be trained to do everything in their power to create a smooth, positive visitor experience.
Ultimately, that is also the first (and ongoing) job of your UI. While you cannot request a chirpy smile from an interface, you can design it to be as frictionless as possible. The basics of a good UI are universal: simple, slim-lined, consistent and predictable. Just like any receptionist worth their salt will follow a standard pattern of behaviour, any UI worth its salt should follow the fundamental basics.
In a Nutshell
A cranky, unwelcoming receptionist will make offline customers disinclined to engage with your company. Their antagonism sets instant alarm bells ringing, sending off negative signals the moment the visitor passes the threshold.
A bad UI does the same. It is the product or app equivalent of a mishandled, moody entrance into a building, making the user want to turn right back around and exit. And digitally, when there is nobody to see the user leaving, no abandonment guilt or fear of being impolite, a user with a poor first impression is more likely to leave.
It all boils down to this: your user interface is the face of your company. Do not make yours miserable.
Want to learn more?
Are you interested in the intersection between UX and UI Design? The online courses on UI Design Patterns for Successful Software and Design Thinking: The Beginner’s Guide can teach you skills you need. If you take a course, you will earn an industry-recognized course certificate to advance your career. On the other hand, if you want to brush up on the basics of UX and Usability, try the online course on User Experience (or another design topic). Good luck on your learning journey!
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