Importance of Being Useful - Hero.png

As we go into the new year, pandemic still running roughshod over our communities and more and more experiences moving, perhaps permanently, to digital applications, I have some unsolicited advice for businesses wanting to extend further into digital solutions:

Above all else, be useful.

That’s it. Be impeccably and relentlessly useful to other humans. Usefulness is underrated. As a user experience designer, I’ve worked on lots of interesting projects. One of our key responsibilities when working with our client partners is to help figure out how we build something useful. OOUX is one way we do that. Customer research is another. Initially, businesses interested in digital solutions might come to the table saying things like:

“We want something that’s visually stunning.”

“We feel like adding <insert functionality ideas here> will be a game changer.”

“We think if we gamify this or add incentives, it’ll drive engagement.”

All good things to consider. But, before all that, we need to pause, back up, and answer three key questions about any prospective digital solution, especially when it’s a new idea:

What problem does this solve?

If we don’t understand the specific problem this digital solution addresses, how can we expect to arrive at the correct solution? Is the problem clear, with good edges, or we trying to tackle too much at once? We work to peel back the layers of the onion to make sure we understand the true root issue, because the initially proposed problem isn’t always the one that needs solving first.

Who is having this problem?

Is this affecting our entire audience? Just one role or user type? Is it worth doing if it’s only problematic for a small percentage of people? What if that small group generates significant revenue? Defining the size and scope of who is having the problem is critical to developing the most revenue (or budget) conscious solution.

How do we know it's a problem for them?

This is perhaps the most important one. How do we know? Have we done customer research? Is our customer service team constantly fielding complaints? Do we have actual voice of customer data? Or are we making assumptions? Talking directly to the people experiencing the problem clears the path to high value, and ultimately more economical, solutions.

These aren’t necessarily easy questions; businesses commonly have some difficulty answering them. But we ask for a very good reason: it’s far too easy to throw a ton of time, effort, and money at building digital solutions that ultimately don’t solve the right problems for the right people. Remember “Field of Dreams?” With software, just building something doesn’t guarantee anyone’s coming. It’s an unnecessary gamble, and costly if your assumptions are wrong.

In our experience, the smartest strategy businesses can adopt is not to first prioritize the most beautiful design, or the most paradigm-shifty set of features. It’s to focus on building the most quietly useful tool that directly and effectively solves one or more validated problems for a specific group of people…and then market the hell out of it, naturally. Bonus points if it’s also gorgeously executed and manages to nudge a paradigm or two.

Good software is so useful it's almost invisible

Easily 20 years ago now, I read a book called “Why Software Sucks…and What You Can Do About It” by David Platt. One quote has always stuck with me, and I use it to this day:

“People don’t want to use your software. They want to have used it to get something done.”

If you want to maximize your success, your software (your website, your application) must be fully detached from your organization’s ego. It isn’t about you and what you want. It’s not about executive leadership; it’s not about your Board; it’s not about your marketing or product teams. At least not primarily.

Your top priority is who’s using it. Your customers. Your subscribers. Your buyers. Your partners. Your employees. The people you’re trying to reach and serve. It’s about offering a digital solution that’s laser-focused on helping them get in and quickly get something done so they can move on with their lives. When you provide digital tools so useful they’re almost invisible, you’re winning. If people barely remember using your application to accomplish a task? You’re doing something right. It sounds counterintuitive, but that’s rocket fuel for brand loyalty. That’s how you become essential.

But...I just have a marketing site

You don’t have to have a web application or other software that “does stuff” to be digitally useful. Usefulness takes many forms. Even if your site is content-heavy and primarily for marketing and awareness purposes, utility can still underpin everything you do.

When your site content is organized based on how visitors think about your subject matter domain, it’s easier to find answers and know what to do next. That’s useful.

When your product mix is categorized and named based on what your customers call things, that makes the right product easier to find and purchase. That’s useful.

When you minimize jargony marketing copy and maximize self-service information, tutorials, and resources, that’s putting power in your customers’ hands and building their confidence. That’s useful.

When you’ve created clear paths for people based on who they are or what they want, rather than how you’re structured as an organization, that creates strong “information scent” to guide visitors to content that applies to them. It’s like lights on a runway. That’s useful.

Becoming more digitally useful in 2022

Usefulness via digital solutions is a process. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. I attended a talk by Peter Shankman a few years back, and he shared another quote (originally referring to brand loyalty) that I refer back to often:

“You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be 1% better than everybody else.”

It’s the same thing with digitalization of your business. Incremental improvements, with a focus on usefulness and solving real customer problems, pay dividends. The key is to start. Want some help? Our veteran team has helped businesses do more with digital for decades. We’d love to help you create a strategy and actionable roadmap to greater digital enablement, planning digital tooling that makes you incredibly useful and ultimately invaluable to the people you serve. Reach out, and let’s schedule an introductory call to talk about how we can pave a path to your increased digital success this year.