Usability as a Marketing Tool | January 27, 2009

Despite being 2009, one of the biggest complaints I hear from people when describing their online activities is how difficult websites are to use. People get amazingly frustrated when they’re trying to do something seemingly simple and the website continuously gets in the way. It’s almost as though the people designing or commissioning the website haven’t used it themselves. For most consumers this idea seems incredible, but sadly it’s largely still the case.

Very few design agencies think about how a website is going to be used, obsessing instead on what it looks like or how it’s put together. This obsession also filters through to the people commissioning the website as it’s much easier to criticise something based on looks or features than usability.

You can understand this attitude from sites that don’t play a big role in the fortunes of the company. However it rarely seems to matter if the site is a brochureware site or the main way people do business with the company.

Over the last few years we’ve seen a proliferation of online comparison services that aim to help you get the best deal on anything from the flat panel TV you’ve been lusting over to your home insurance. The whole goal of these sites it make it easy for people to compare different options and then switch providers, so it’s amazing how badly put together they all are. While they may be technically impressive, they provide the same level of experience you would have expected 5-10 years ago.

So during the self imposed tellyfest that is Christmas, I was impressed to see a series of adverts from focussing on the usability of the site. The ad was gloriously simple. Just a collection of presumably real customers extolling the virtues of the new website and how easy it was to use. Now I may be wrong (i often am) but I don’t remember seeing any TV ads that actually sell the usability of the site as a feature. Instead they normally focus on features like the number of sites they check. Either that or they get some burke dressed up in a nautical outfit shouting at you like some deranged loon outside a sailors mission. Like that’s where I go for financial advice!

It’s only a small thing but I’d love more pure-play companies to stop selling their services through traditional means and start seeing usability as a differentiator and a marketing tool. Although the fact that they can means there are a hell of a lot of unusable websites out there, which is a worry.

Posted at January 27, 2009 4:03 PM


Andy Budd said on January 27, 2009 4:17 PM

Incidentally their previous adverts seemed to treat their customers like they were in some sort of secure facility, so I’m glad that’s changed.

Barry Briggs said on January 27, 2009 4:26 PM

I spotted that new ad and it raised an eyebrow here too (whilst raising a slightly confused yawn from my wife!)

I love the way it’s taking something everyone complains about, but few do anything about, and using it as a USP.

I also agree it’s rather alarming that a large website’s usability is a USP, rather than something that is taken for granted!

Laura said on January 27, 2009 4:30 PM

Thanks Andy. This has just become a beautiful springboard from which I can hopefully convince a group tomorrow that users are the whole point of a web site!

Cennydd said on January 27, 2009 5:10 PM

Ah, you beat me to it Andy. It’s an interesting ad, particularly when you compare it to confused’s previous UX (awful) and advertising strategy (pure direct response). Clearly they’re now focusing on the brand benefits of being known as the easy comparison site.

However, the ad’s impact is lessened slightly by rumours that all these people are actors, and the fact that the site still has glaring usability fail.

Comparison sites are a particularly interesting (and difficult) market for UX work. On the one hand, all these sites are becoming commodities, offering exactly the same panel of prices. UX is therefore their only competitive advantage in the long run.

However, it can be hard to make UX stick in what is a very pure numbers game: i.e. traffic and conversions. Marketing, SEO and traffic are normally higher in the priority list since they can demonstrate an instant RoI that UX often can’t.

There’s also an interesting ethical complexity for comparison site designers. Certain consumer choices will be more profitable to the site (depending on commercial agreements) and regulation is notoriously light in certain sectors. It’s a little-known fact, for instance, that are owned by Admiral. Knowing this industry, I’m confident this has no bearing on their tables, but the public is often rightly sceptical.

Still, it’s an interesting move. I’d love to see other companies making a big deal of UX in the same way.

Disclaimer: I used to work for uSwitch, one of’s competitors.

ben said on January 29, 2009 1:57 AM

…and is their site actually usable, or have they done what many orgs who only partly get the importance of usability do, and simply paid it lip service?

Kasper Sorensen said on January 30, 2009 4:43 PM

I haven’t seen that advert but noticed that paramount comedy does something similar with their new series of adverts. I can’t find it on youtube but one of them deliberately focuses on the site navigation and how easy it is.

Toad Press said on January 31, 2009 4:40 PM

Hence the genius of Google. It’s always appeared to me that Google places functionality high above any other form of marketing. Contrast that with the heavy in graphics Microsoft Live or the crowded

Martin Smith said on February 2, 2009 12:33 PM

The first time I saw that advert, I do remember feeling rather jealous of the designers that got to work on the site - imagine working for a client so committed to UX! And then having your hard work promoted on TV! Fantastic…

Then I tried to use their site to compare utility companies… As if opening a new window from the front page wasn’t bad enough, they then demanded my full name, address and date of birth before I got in, all without giving me any data protection options or even a link explaining why they needed my details or what thy would do with them…

So I went no further, and simply snigger every time I see an advert… Obviously, won’t be going back…

Jenny Pilley said on February 27, 2009 9:37 AM

It is so important to make sure visitors to your site find navigation simple. Companies are becoming more aware of the way people use the web and simplifying the way their site worked.
I think a major factor that is missing that could make an excellent marketing tool is making websites more disabled friendly. I still think it is an area in website development that many haven’t grasped. Web Accessibility is an area that is definitely an area that companies need to address when marketing their site in all form of medias, especially television.