“Negative ROI” and UX

The first-generation iPhone, in all its bricky glory. (Source)

When I’m asked to explain the ROI of user experience design, I usually talk about the iPhone, and how Apple walked through a giant hole in the market that nobody else seemed to see.

Before 2007, the mobile phone market was littered with products that promised long lists of features beyond just making calls (SMS, email, taking photos). They didn’t do any of these things very well, though, because most phones had numeric keypads and tiny, low-res screens, which limited the ability to actually, you know, use the features.

The Blackberry and the Sidekick were exceptions, in that they had real keyboards, and the Blackberry Pearl even offered a tiny rollerball as a mouse replacement. But mostly the industry seemed happy to offer features that were either very difficult to use, or accessed with an inferior approximation of a desktop UI.

At the time, it seemed like the phone companies were in cahoots: did they get together and agree to create these terrible experiences? Why did nobody realize that badly implemented features didn’t count, from a customer perspective? And why were all the phones so ugly and cheap-seeming, and on and on and on.

Well, Apple realized it, and capitalized on the terrible user experience their competitors provided (and from a customer perspective, their competitors deserved to lose, because look what they were failing to provide for their customers!). The iPhone was beautiful and easy to use, and offered features that you could get to without tap-tap-tapping your way through a keyboard that was never designed to type words.

If you have a smartphone today, I can guarantee that it uses a multi touch screen with a virtual keyboard, just like the iPhone, because Apple set the standard in 2007 for a great smartphone experience, and it’s still the model that all smartphone manufacturers follow today.

So what can we learn from the bomb that was the iPhone?

It’s important to build the right combination of features. But if the user experience is wrong, your customers won’t derive the full benefit of your features (and your competitors will eventually notice).

Sales and marketing promise value to customers. Customers experience this value (you hope) when they start using your product.

If your product experience prevents customers from accessing the full value of the features they were promised, then it’s unlikely that the customer will continue to pay for your product.

Great UX enables the full expression of your product’s value, and you can’t afford to ignore it.

It’s a truism among UX practitioners that it’s nearly impossible to quantify the ROI of UX, because great design is invisible, right? Things just work.

It’s easy to spot the effect of bad UX, though, because it shows up as:

  • Lost sales
  • Lost renewals
  • Bad customer feedback
  • Lots of support calls
  • Bad product demos
  • Less money

If you think you’re building the right features, but you’re losing sales and renewals, do some research. Bad UX is quantifiable, and the cost of bad UX is probably showing up in your balance sheet.



UX leadership, research, and strategy. Bostonian, recovering English major.

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Anne Hjortshoj

UX leadership, research, and strategy. Bostonian, recovering English major.