November 2, 2015

The critical difference between users and customers

There’s an old digital marketing adage I’ve always loved: Only two businesses regularly refer to their clientele as “users,” and one of them isn’t legal.

When I’ve heard businesses talk about users, it’s interesting how quickly everyone in the room buys into the word. Rather than distinct customers, you now have a uniform horde roaming across your website. We all know that’s not true, but it allows us to frame UX/UI conversations in a manageable, yet limiting, way.

Before we jump in, I want to say that I’m not completely against the term users. In a way, it’s the end-product of years of good habits. That’s because every brilliant digital project has started off as an intractable headache – one involving countless hours spent developing, iterating and QAing an experience. It can feel like a miracle to launch a functional website period, let alone a customer-focused one. So it makes sense that, from the perspective of a product team, their customers are trying to “use” their website.

By using the term users, businesses are saying they have put considerable time, money and sweat equity into building a web property. The website or app is their baby, and everything else is secondary. Do their users like it? Everyone hopes so. But once the site is launched, it’s up to the users to figure it out.

The reality is that visitors really aren’t trying to use anything. More often than not, they’re trying to accomplish a very simple goal, such as researching a product, making an ecommerce purchase or reading the latest news. The website is merely the tool they need to reach that goal quickly.

Smart businesses generally know who their visitors are from a demographic or psychographic point of view – their gender, age range, likes and dislikes. But the best businesses realize that such data isn’t always the answer. Truly knowing your customer requires compassion for context.

What separates customer-focused businesses from user-focused businesses is a willingness to not just walk a mile in your customers’ shoes, but to tie your customers’ shoes for them. That isn’t to say your customers aren’t smart enough to do it themselves, but every second they spend doing it is time they feel like they’re wasting.

It’s important to keep in mind that your business occupies a small portion of your customers’ lives. Most of your visitors – even the loyal ones– want to go to your site, find what they’re looking for and get back to the real world. Your team is probably competing with other retailers, but the tougher competition is with the doorbell, or a child coming home from school, or the cashier saying “next.” Your job isn’t only about giving your customers the functionality they need, or making the experience pretty (though pretty helps). Your job is to give your customers a design that lets them get what they need fast.

One foolproof way to improve is by directly asking your customers for feedback. What’s working? What’s not? Will this piece of functionality make things easier for you, or more confusing? There are lots of ways to ask these questions. My favorite is through testing and validation, but we try to be solution agnostic in our problem-solving approach. When we first begin an engagement, Clearhead (like any partner) doesn’t understand your business – you do. But believe it or not, your customers know even more than either of us about what would help them.

So the next time you’re wondering what would improve your “user” base’s conversion rates, it might be time to tap those customers on the shoulder and find out.

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