Design , Product Design — 09.09.2020

Three Signs You Have an Outdated User Interface

Katie Lukes, Principal, Product Strategy & Research

Business-to-business (B2B) software products, particularly those that have been around a long time, face a unique challenge when it comes to user experience. They may have all the earmarks of success: strong profitability, high numbers of users, thousands of transactions flowing through every day, and high lifetime customer value. And yet they may still have an outdated user interface that’s a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. 

What do I mean by explode? As a user interface ages, it necessarily starts to cause problems, in a number of different ways:

  1. The very feature-richness that makes a B2B software so valuable becomes the thing that strangles its usability. When features are added on features over time, the information architecture becomes tangled: features and workflows become hard to understand and difficult to train, and it’s easier for users to make mistakes.
  2. The user interface conventions that were put in place when the software was first built are no longer the popular, modern UI conventions and patterns that people recognize and like to use now. The rise of SaaS software in particular has led to a very specific and recognizable set of patterns that users have come to expect, and they are confused when they are not there, resulting in frustration and errors.
  3. An aged interface tells a story about a company that the company may not intend. Like a house with flaking paint and a lawn overgrown with weeds, a user interface that shows its age indicates that the company is not as user-focused as it should be, that the technology behind the software is probably older as well, and that the talent at the company may not be keeping up with modern methods.

But making the leap from knowing that a user experience or interface change is necessary to actually carrying out a redesign is a tricky undertaking. When you have successful, profitable software with a strong user base, kicking the can on the decision is much easier than making a potentially expensive and disruptive change. If people are using it day in and day out, does it really need to change? 

3 ways to tell you need a change

  1. In the sales process, prospects compare your user interface unfavorably to newer entrants. Sure, your existing customers are accustomed to the way your software looks and behaves, and they don’t seem to have a problem. Prospective customers, however, are shopping for something they can put in place and use for a long time. They want to feel that software they are investing in and putting into their employees’ hands is something new and that will scale with them into the future. If your software looks like it’s living in the past, you’re disqualified before you even have a chance to demonstrate value. The hit to your credibility and brand is hard to recover from.
  2. Your product and engineering teams are fighting fires constantly and do not have the bandwidth to think about the future. When big customers are hammering away at an aged digital product with heavy usage, much like thousands of cars running over an old bridge, something is going to give. There will be infrastructure and data problems that have to be fixed immediately. Customers will push the product and have feature requests. When your teams are too busy trying to patch up the existing product to do proper product discovery on new directions or innovations, your software is in danger of stagnating. That stagnation will prevent new sales, keep your team from growing in skills, and prevent top talent from wanting to come work for you.
  3. Customer support and training are plugging the holes where poor user experience is causing confusion or bad data. Organic growth of features over time can make a piece of software confusing to use. Perhaps you acquired software that was patched in strangely. Menus become convoluted. The workflows to accomplish a task become unintuitive. 

The consequence is that your customer support team and training become the crutches for poor user experience. You must rely on extensive training materials, videos, and handholding to ensure that users can be effective on your software. Your customer support team grows because users cannot figure out how to do certain things on their own. Or the poor user experience means that users make errors, and the data must be fixed. 

Questions you should ask

The question typically isn’t, “Should I update our user experience?” Unless you’re going to sunset a product, you’re going to have to do something eventually with your user experience. 

The questions you should ask are more like:

  • What is the extent of change that we need? A light coat of paint or a complete re-write?
  • How can we make these changes in such a way to minimize customer disruption while also making an impact?
  • What are the KPIs we would expect to move to make this worthwhile?
  • How can we de-risk this effort to avoid becoming an expensive waste of time?
  • What are the resources we need either internally or externally to do this the right way?
  • What are the opportunities that a redesign would provide: to update our pricing and packaging, sales processes, or thought leadership position in the market? To expand our target markets?
  • What changes do we need to make to our team to ensure we can maintain and grow the improved user experience?

Some suggested next steps

  • Start with data: Upfront research into the current usage of your product and your users themselves will arm you with the information and insights you need to determine your path forward. Analytics on how your features are used will be crucial to understanding where you might be able to streamline or combine features. Qualitative interviews with users that identifies their key challenges and goals will help you understand how they work NOW as opposed to how they worked when your product was first built.
  • Find a good partner: Chances are, your team are experts on your software and the way it works today, and if their time is consumed in working on your product, they have not been able to become experts in the latest in software design and how to refresh a dated software. A good digital product partner will work with you through the process, bringing your team along with them to create a quality change that lasts.
  • Map it out: Rome wasn’t built in a day and your redesign shouldn’t be built or released in a day either. Create a strategy around your implementation and rollout that takes into account: who will use the refreshed product (everyone? only new customers? only certain segments of customers?), how and when features will be redesigned and released, and how you’ll manage the change both internally and with customers. That roadmap will lead to parallel roadmaps for marketing and sales as well.
  • Socialize the vision: Once you’ve decided it’s time for an updated user experience, you’ll need to bring everyone else up to where you are. Internal socialization that conveys the reasoning, the vision, and the proposed timeline will go a long way to generating excitement and squashing rumors. Externally, you’ll need strong product marketing to convey what is happening, how, and how it will be released or made available. 
  • Know that it isn’t a one and done: And because an updated user experience may require some new technology, some new process, and maybe some new people as well, start planning early for how your team will change so that all of this newness can be maintained and grown over time. You may need a design system and the right people to build and maintain it. Your existing team may need training and development in processes and techniques they’ve never had the time to explore before. You’re building an engine for the future, not just repairing a problem.

Successful B2B software company leadership knows that that success is neither permanent nor guaranteed. An outdated user interface serves as a signal to customers, to employees, and to the market. Fortunately, there are myriad ways to address it and roll it out – all it takes is that first step.