Monthly Archives: March 2007

What usability really is

Usability tends to get a specialized definition focused on the internet – making websites easier to use and the process itself tends to be covered up in fancy wording like heuristics and reverse card-sorting, but at a primal level, at its deepest core, usability is not new and how it is done isn’t either. What has happened is that two other knowledge areas have been combined and applied differently.

Marketing has always focused on understanding how to appeal to customers, how to understand what they like and want and how to make whatever we’re selling fall into that realm. In truth, however, marketing is trying to understand the customer and his or her motivations so we can meet their needs. That’s the underlying focus of usability testing. We’re trying to eventually make our site so straight-forward and easy to use that they will use it and that they will succeed in whatever they’re trying to do on the site. That’s why usability is really about customer service – it always has been and it always will be. The focus is just web-based.

I have a practical example that reinforces how intensely valuable it is when the website and the brick and mortar experiences coincide and reinforce each other. I have two IRA cds that are maturing. Since I’m not headed for retirement yet I needed to renew them and wanted to get the best rates i could. So I went to the site of my bank where the cds are now (Bank of America) to find out what the rates were. Nada. Zero. Zip. Search gave me meaningless blah on interest rates in general, but there was nothing on actual rates they’re offering now.

So I looked at other bank sites, including a new bank that’s moving into Middle Tennessee, called Fifth Third. They didn’t have a search, which was disconcerting, but I clicked on a link for CDs and saw a link straight to their current rates. I found that they have a special at 5%. That’s not a high rate, but these days it’s better than most. It was simple to find, though. So I went to a local branch in Hermitage – they are right down from my office and walked in the door. Immediately, I was greeted by two tellers from behind the counter, both of whom wanted to help me. They asked what I needed and then one came out from behind the counter to help. We filled out the paperwork, she told me everything I had to do to arrange the transfer, and we were done. It was a very pleasant experience and we were done in around five minutes. Then I went to Bank of America.

I got there at noon and walked in the door. The bank is always busy at lunch time so they have set up a help kiosk just inside the door. I have dealt with two people before who get to stand there and help people and both have always been very helpful when I’ve come in. They don’t do deposits but they handle the smaller things that don’t require a bank officer or a teller. Both of these people were at the kiosk when I walked in. They asked if they could help and when I told them what I needed, they told me I would need to wait for a bank officer.

There was a line for the two bank officers so I sat and waited. Finally one became available and then another and I was next in line. After sitting there waiting for 17 minutes, one of the ladies who had been at the kiosk came up and said she could help me. It seems she was a bank officer and not only could she have helped me when I walked in but she could have been helping the other people who were waiting as well. Whatever reason she had for standing at the kiosk, and it may have been perfectly valid, it left an immediate customer service impression on me.

I’m moving my account to Fifth Third not just because of the rates but mostly because of the service differences. They are substantial because the 5/3 employees aren’t just tellers – they’re relationship managers. That’s what their business cards call them and that’s the attitude and approach they take. It’s a winning difference. It won me. In case you happen to live near Hermitage, TN, where this 5/3 Bank is, the young woman’s name is Emily Evans. She’s my new banker.

Get Smart

No, not the old TV show. The Smart car. Roger Penske, the Chairman of smart USA has announced a registration plan so you can get in line to possibly buy your own 2008 Smart car. Just give them your information, including your drivers license number and a $99 deposit and you’re set.

And they have announced the pricing. The Pure Smart (low end, that is) is set to start under $12,000, with the Passion coupe under $14,000 and the cabriolet under $17,000. Registering doesn’t guarantee you a car, it’s to help smart USA allocate vehicles to dealers. Your $99 is applied to the purchase price (or refunded by calling 1-800-smart-USA if you decide otherwise). (Pricing doesn’t include taxes, options, etc., of course.)

What remains to be seen is whether the oomph of the Smart is enough to make people feel comfortable getting on an interstate on ramp. It’s an urban car, originally designed for European cities. On this side of the pond, many cities are set up so interstates are the main means of getting around.

The Pure smart does not include air conditioning, alloy wheels, or a radio. The Passion has the panorama roof, alloy wheels, AC, power windows, electric heated side mirrors and an AM/FM/CD player radio. The Cabriolet has an upgraded stereo (MP3-compatible & 6 CD changer), soft top and heated rear window.

50 years ago

The car to have was the Chevy BelAir. Complete with tail fins, chrome and aluminum molding, your options were a radio, power windows, power steering and power brakes (things we now take for granted), air conditioning, and deep pile carpeting. There were no safety features (except for the driver), but it did have bullets on the front bumpers and tail lights that looked like rocket exhausts and it was cool.

Today we expect CD players, power-assisted leather seats, air bags, antilock brakes, and a built-in remorte control for our garage doors. In some ways, however, sedans similar in size to the ’57 Chevy aren’t all that different now. They weigh about the same and have about as much horsepower, and, sadly, don’t get all that much better mileage given the intervening five decades. The differences are as large. Newer cars are safer and the ride and driving experience is more person-friendly. Driving a 50s era car is definitely nostalgic but if you’ve never driven a car without power steering or disk brakes, the driving experience is quite different. You need a lot more stopping room. But you can’t beat the experience.

If only the mileage had gone up as much as the price had. The MSRP for a ’57 Chevy was around $2,400. The MSRP for a ’07 Chevy is around $28,700. A restored to show quality ’57 Chevy can be worth upwards of $30,000. And convertibles are really expensive!

 Back in the late 50s, the U.S. automakers held about 96% of the domestic market. Today it’s down to about 55%. Ford was number 1 in sales then, Toyota is now. Then Americans drove around 600 billion miles a year and had almost 5,000 drive-in theaters to go to; now we drive 3 trillion miles a year and go somewhere else – there are less than 400 drive-ins left.