Many of my initial meetings with clients start with something like, “Our software is clunky and outdated and needs a facelift.” I get it. The user interface (UI) is what everyone sees first and it’s really easy to react to. But what typically follows this is a series of questions that help me uncover whether a new paint job will really solve their problems. Issues may start with “outdated” or “clunky” UI, but they typically stem from deeper issues related to your business.
But first, an analogy that is not the typical “iceberg hiding hidden pains beneath the surface” image: Lifestyle TV shows. There’s a reason that shows like What Not to Wear, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Restaurant Impossible and The Profit all end in tears: the work of these designers and consultants is bigger than simply updating the outward appearance of someone’s outfit, home, business, or restaurant. The shows focus on deeper issues that uncover how the person, home or business got to where they are today—and that is where the consultant begins. They start on the surface, then work backwards through their business or personal life, then to understand how they got to where they are today.
Just like the subjects of these shows, most software renovation efforts start because it looks outdated and works poorly. But a great renovation will uncover deeper issues and greater opportunities. This is what’s really behind outdated software:
Your software becomes out of date when it no longer aligns with who you are as a business, and doesn’t support how you want to grow.
In this article, I’m going to work backward from usability to identify the ways outdated software can negatively affect a business and how to overcome these challenges. I’ll start with problems affecting users and work backwards through sales and marketing, then through internal development to show the interrelated problems (and opportunities) that outdated software creates for businesses.
Problem 1: Usability is a recurring issue
For the sake of this article, I’m referring to usability as it pertains to active usage and adoption more than how it pertains to how well someone can accomplish a certain task. Usage and adoption are leading indicators of deeper usability problems.
Decreasing active usage indicates that your users are likely accomplishing their goals in another way. Or, to put it more seriously, users are starting to find workarounds so they don’t have to use your software. This is obviously bad for business.
User adoption is another canary in the coal mine of usability. If you haven’t tried to improve onboarding, or haven’t invested seriously in a good first-time user experience, then it’s likely the time you spend onboarding new users today is much higher than it was even three years ago.
Both of these metrics are truly at stake with an outdated product. While you left your product UI alone, users got smarter and their standards raised significantly. While most theaters are adding reclining seats and full bars, you don’t want to become the musty discount theater headed for imminent closure.
How to diagnose usability problems
- Are your daily active users decreasing?
- How often are users complaining about your UI?
- Are customer support calls increasing?
- Can users onboard themselves or do they require customer support?
Problem 2: Sales is struggling to tell a compelling story
If someone is using the product, this assumes that someone bought it. But outdated UI might be preventing anyone from even buying it in the first place. All the users blowing up your customer support line could be even louder if your sales team had a product that more people were buying to begin with.
Outdated product is difficult to sell. Even if you are in an industry that is still new to tech, your first impression will still compete with all the other beautiful apps your potential customers use. However, visuals are only the tip of the iceberg (glad I got to use that analogy after all). Outdated UX will often mean your product is inefficient, disorganized or simply cumbersome to use. Imagine a salesperson giving a demo of a task that should only require one screen, but instead has them clicking all over the screen, navigating a dozen form fields. Not even the most beautiful UI will sell when the demo itself doesn’t convey ease-of-use.
Outdated UX will often mean your product is inefficient, disorganized or simply cumbersome to use.
How to diagnose sales issues
- Are you losing deals to new competitors?
- Are salespeople struggling to demo the product?
Problem 3: Your marketing efforts are evolving, but your product is not
And, if someone is talking to sales, then that means they have interacted with your marketing in some way. But again, if what about all those potential leads that never make it out of your marketing funnel?
The most common reasons that your marketing becomes out of sync with your product is due to one or more of the following:
- You are moving upstream for larger customers.
- You are moving into a new market completely.
- You are increasing share of your existing market.
In all three of these cases, an outdated product will cause challenges for marketing. As your marketing evolves, it will often require that the product evolves with it. Just as visuals help salespeople, better screenshots will also help marketing. The product also has to be designed in a way that gives marketing the tools it needs to tell these new stories to new markets.
As your marketing evolves, it will often require that the product evolves with it.
How to diagnose problems with product marketing
- Are you going after new markets?
- Have you updated your messaging?
Problem 4: Adding new features is costly
Before anyone can use your software, they must first buy it, which means they must have first reacted positively to your marketing, which means you have built something that was worth marketing in the first place. We’re getting to the core of how software actually becomes outdated.
Now, obviously, you have built something worth marketing—ironically, the only way you become outdated is that you were successful. As time goes on, your product gets harder to improve and add on to. This is obviously a big challenge for your business’ future success. If you can’t improve upon your product, then you can’t grow your business.
Great UX and product management processes are keys to ensuring you can grow product(s) as your business grows.
Product management ensures that you devote enough resources to handling ongoing product tweaks (aka, “keeping the lights on”), while devoting ongoing resources to prioritized new features. Over time it’s not uncommon for the minor tweaks to take over the roadmap which keeps pushing new features down the road.
One of the hidden benefits of great UX is how it supports dev, QA and product management. A better-designed product is easier to build, and easier to test. Then, once it’s in market, it’s easier to fix defects. Most designers will tell you that great design is usable and beautiful, but when you think of UX from a business standpoint, it is a multiplier.
How to diagnose UX and PM issues
- How long does it take to plan and build new features?
- Do defects and customer support requests dominate your backlog?
- Are you regularly designing next-generation concepts?
Identifying outdated software starts with what users see, but often the problems extend deeper. By working backward from usability → sales → marketing → product management and UX, you can achieve a clearer picture of where your product’s biggest challenges are. And if you need help knowing what to do, don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I love a good Extreme Makeover: UI Edition.