UX: the Antidote for Poison Pills in Big, Expensive Software Solutions
If your organization is about to request proposals for a reservation system or other big-ticket software solution, you need to sort out the user experience (UX) first: it will make or break your project.
Yesterday, I met with a potential new client to develop a website for their sports facility. It turns out that they had already hired a software “solution” provider that specializes in online reservations for the recreational sector. The project was well underway, having started about two months prior.
Immediately, my eyebrows went up, because I know what’s involved in configuring a pre-existing software solution, and two months buys you a whole lot of configuring.
For example, I could have installed a premium WordPress reservation system, populated it and integrated it seamlessly into this client’s site in two or three days – not longer than a week – at a cost of a couple thousand dollars, plus the $100/year subscription cost for the plugin. And it would have done everything they needed it to, and looked great.
Yet, the software firm they had contracted had dedicated employees working on it for months (allegedly), configuring their own software, with which they should have been configuring wizards.
And we’re not talking about a client with complex or diverse requirements: their facility has less than 10 spaces for rent.
Anyways, in order to quote on the front-end design, I needed to see what the reservation interface looked like, because that would dictate the user flow, and which pages needed to be built. So we asked to see what they had so far, but they had nothing to show us yet, which set off more alarms in my head.
So, I decided to search for some instances of their software online.
My first hit was an article about how they sold their system to a nearby municipality at the eye-popping price of $130,000.
Now, I could have built them a fully integrated, proprietary system for much less than that, so I assumed that this must be the Bugatti SUV of reservation software.
So I went to the municipality’s website to see the implementation. Sure enough, there was a copyright notice from the software provider in the footer of the page, so I knew I was in the right place.
After a bit of digging around, I discovered that the city offered swimming lessons that I could book online. I was able to pull up a lesson schedule and view details of each lesson. It looked generic, and it required a lot of clicks to do what I wanted to do (booking a lesson and paying for it) but it was something I could work with.
Finally, I saw the Book Now Online button, and clicked it, which brought up a page prompting me to log in. Not yet having an account, I clicked on the “create account” link, which brought up a screen asking for my email address. Thinking this was the first step of a multi-page signup process, I entered my email address and hit Next.
Error! That email address does not exist in the system. Please try again.
Apparently, in order to create an account, you needed to already have an account.
Put yourself in the shoes of some parent trying to enroll her kid in swim classes: at this point, you’d either have to phone someone at the city rec department, or take your business elsewhere.
There’s $130,000 well spent!
Looking for a better implementation, I found another sports centre – one of my client’s competitors, actually – using their system. They offered swim classes as well, but instead of showing me a table of all available classes, I was presented with a search form, and prompted to choose the month in which I would like to start and the day I would like to attend.
So I picked July, and Monday, to which it replied: “No results matching your query.”
Brief aside: if a system’s error messages use the word “query”, then they were written by a programmer, which does not bode well from a user experience point of view.
Back to finding a swimming class…
After brute-force attacking this search form, I had gathered enough data to conclude that the only days they offered classes were on Wednesdays, and only starting in April. Of course, no parent would bother doing what I did in order to figure that out.
If I had to guess, I would say the conversion rate for their online swimming lesson booking process is close to zero.
Which leaves me wondering why these crippling issues hadn’t been fixed. Could it be because staff members at these organizations have leveraged their reputations on procuring an outrageously expensive system without doing their due diligence, and were taken in by a weighty proposal, slick presentation and possibly a night on the town with a silver-tongued salesperson? Would their jobs be at risk to admit to their bosses that the system was an unmitigated disaster, so instead they are chalking up the absence of online reservations to the fact that parents just aren’t interested in swimming lessons anymore… and the ones that are are from the old-school and prefer to book by phone? One can only speculate.
Or maybe they have acknowledged the problem internally but have no budget left over to rectify it – the funds having been absorbed into the horde of ill-gotten riches that the software provider CEO sleeps on at night, Smaug-like.
The average person would by surprised to learn how often outrageously expensive “solutions” like these are dead on arrival. Designed and built by programmers – not usability experts – they may be efficient, elegant and robust as can be, from a programming perspective. And the salesperson giving the demo drives it like a pro, showing off its capabilities with ease. Just look at everything it can do… once you master the tool!
Meanwhile, your target user can’t even get the tool out of the box.
So how does your organization dodge this bullet?
Before you put out a request for proposal for a reservation system or any big-ticket third party software solution, make sure you understand which paths will lead your customer to achieving their objective with the least amount of friction.
If you want people to book swimming lessons, have a button on the home page or navigation that takes them to a page where you explain the lessons you offer, and what classes are available. On that page, give them the option to get more details about a specific lesson, or Book Now, which takes them directly to a payment page.
Don’t make them create an account. Don’t make them input any information other than the minimum required to facilitate the transaction, because each extra hoop you make them jump through increases the chances of them getting stuck, and abandoning the process. These are basic principles of good user experience (UX) design.
Better yet, hire a UX designer (like myself) to map out the process for you, and if the system you are considering can’t be tailored to meet your optimal process, move on to the next one. There’s plenty of fish in the sea.
Best of all, hire a lean and mean design and development firm (like mine) to build something custom that meets your needs perfectly, while keeping costs low by leveraging established web services, plugins and open source software. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel: all the parts exist and are optimized and secure, with experts that manage and update them regularly.
All that needs to be done is assemble the parts in a way that meets your business goals, satisfies your customer’s needs with optimal efficiency, and makes a positive brand impression.
Because you don’t need a $130,000 coal-burning Bugatti SUV with the steering wheel on the wrong side… when a Ford will get you anywhere you need to go.