The Experience Barrier

Improving usability of digital products

As my family’s designated nerd, I have the important responsibility of helping inexperienced users of technology with their problems. In this role, I have noticed some things about usability.

I tend to focus on digital products’ usability at a low level. Some discussions I’ve had in the office recently summarise this kind of thinking:

These are important discussions to have. However, they are at a very different level to the problems inexperienced users face. Low-level improvements provide lesser marginal gains for inexperienced users than higher-level accessibility and usability improvements.

The user technology stack

Just like engineers have a technology stack (hardware, operating systems, severs, databases, programming languages, frameworks), users also face a stack to work with. For a user to have access to your product, there are a set of systems they must support and requirements they must meet:

It’s a long list. This might be effortless and second-nature for you, but it is complicated and front-of-mind for inexperienced users.

If a user has not progressed through the list of requirements far enough to be in a position to use your product if they wanted to, they have hit the “experience barrier”.

Your users are not like you

To see the importance of the experience barrier, it’s important to recognise that your users are less experienced than you. The ease of access to your product is a barrier to entry for them.

A study of adults’ computer skills by the OECD (summarised nicely by the Nielsen Norman Group) provides insight into the disparity between your own skills and the average user’s.

If you want to target a broad consumer audience, it’s safest to assume that users’ skills are those specified for level 1. An example of level-1 task is “Find all emails from John Smith.” There is little or no navigation required.

In short, you can perform complex tasks with data in a digital product, but most users will only be able to perform the simplest tasks.

Because users may not be proficient with digital products, they may also not be able to meet your current experience barrier. They may not be skilled enough to have the prerequisites.

The email example is a good one: If your confirmation email goes into their spam folder, you have immediately lost unskilled users.

An earlier stage example: If a user doesn’t know how to use a smartphone, they cannot use your mobile app.

The experience funnel

For an unskilled user, getting to a point where they can start using a product is difficult. It is important to lower the experience barrier of your product to optimise this.

One way to think about the experience barrier is as the final stage of a funnel.

Usually acquisition funnels start when a user installs your app, or when you first target them with marketing. A experience funnel could start when the user first gets a device you support, or first gets access to the Internet. From that point on you can look at which stages are most complex to complete on the path to being able to use your product.

Thinking of this as a funnel is not intended for any serious form of tracking. It is a thought exercise to uncover stages which are blocking inexperienced users from being able to use your product.

Uncovering experience blockers

You can find blockers for accessing your product in general, or for specific flows. The same method can be used for each.

  1. Uncover: Write your access requirements on post-its (e.g. “has an email account”, “knows how to search items in a list”)
  2. Sort: Arrange them in a column as funnel stages from start to finish (e.g. “has a computer” above “has an email account”)
  3. Improve: Next to each step, add post-its with ideas for how to simplify it or bypass it

Once you have your board, there are some things to consider:

Improving steps at the very top will likely not show increases in acquisition of inexperienced users. Users stuck at at the earliest stages will not be able to pass the more complex following levels easily.

Improving steps at the very bottom will provide small gains in the number of users who can comfortably start using your product.

Hence, the best areas to look at will generally be at the bottom of the funnel with the most improvements suggested (having lots of viable improvements means they will be the ones which are most easily improved).

Questions

Why is it important? Lowering the experience barrier for your product means more people will be able to use it. Improving acquisition is key for many products.

How does it compare to low-level usability improvements? If you have seen that existing users are not facing significant issues with usability, then you may make greater gains with reducing the experience barrier.

How can I use it when working on a new feature? Consider the experience barrier for existing features and if this adds any additional requirements for the user. Remove those if possible.

How can I use it when working on a new product? Conduct user interviews with the goal of discovering what experience level your target users generally sit at. You can then set a starting point for your experience funnel. When making system decisions, consider the complexity it adds for your users.

Feedback and updates

Have suggestions or questions? Used this technique and have some thoughts to share with others?

You can email [email protected]. Valuable points will be added here.

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