UX: Can Usability Be Sticky Too?

A couple days ago, an entrepreneur and academic named Nir Eyal wrote a guest post for TechCrunch on UX and usability that pretty much blew my mind. Nir is an expert in the intersection of software design and psychology, and his premise was simple yet radical: the greater the investment a user makes into a product, the more committed they’ll be to it.


What he stopped short of saying, but I interpreted anyway, is that the harder it is to learn your product, the more loyal your customers will be. Could that really be true?

Sure, it meshes perfectly with behavioral economics, which generally concludes that people behave irrationally in the face of sunk costs. It also matches up with my experience in software consulting. One of our portfolio companies, Prognosis, competes in the EHR space with number of cold-war era competitors whose usability, by most accounts, is inferior. Yet one of the main challenges in getting hospitals to switch is convincing them to write off the years of experience they have with their existing system.

But where Nir’s idea doesn’t fit, at all, is with the existing paradigm of user experience. Software is supposed to rely on existing conventions and human nature to require as little learning as possible. Like Steve Krug’s book, it isn’t supposed to make you think. There is no talk in UX circles about a tradeoff between stickiness and usability — usability is better, and therefore stickier. But isn’t an intuitive product mutually exclusive with requiring substantial investment? If it is, doesn’t that mean that a ‘good’ piece of software can’t also be sticky?

In my opinion, there is an innate tension between usability and stickiness. The same cumbersome qualities that make me hate a product in a free trial keep me unnaturally tethered to it, once I’ve actually taken the time to learn and become accustomed to it. I’ve worked hard to get where I am, feel a sense of accomplishment about it, and don’t want to go through the experience again. It’s annoying, but it works. When B2B companies come to the proverbial fork in the UX road and have to choose usability or stickiness for their own software needs, they often choose the stickier option, whether they know it or not.

But then it struck me. By making your product’s sophistication match your user’s as they move along the learning curve, you can win newcomers and keep old-timers from churning, too. There IS a way to have your UX cake and eat it, too, and here’s how:

  1. Keep the introductory product simple. Follow standard usability conventions for beginning or sporadic users. Keep it simple and intuitive. But…
  2. Provide a return on investment for power users. Advanced features don’t have to be front and center to appeal to power users — as long as they know they exist, they’ll seek them out. Either provide ample documentation, or let them know via an opt-in newsletter or blog.
  3. Customization. Your product needs to work great out of the box, but allowing advanced users configuration options will allow them to productively invest time into your product.
  4. Cultivate Stored Value. One of the key points in Nir’s post was that data-accumulating software can be especially addictive. I couldn’t agree more. It also has the effect of requiring escalating expertise to manipulate and visualize as the volume of data increases, mirroring the user’s learning curve.
  5. Build a relationship. While actual personal relationships are nice, manufactured digital relationships — where a customer support or sales rep has all of the necessary information about who they’re communicating with directly at their fingertips — can amplify the effect. Getting a customer to view their relationship with your firm as an asset will help you keep them.

The key to a sticky product, like Nir said, is to make your user invest time and brainpower into learning it. But your entry-level product doesn’t have to be outrageously complicated to achieve this. A simple base product, combined with layers of optional power features, can lock in existing users but maintain the accessibility to win new ones. The key is to give the user a choice: between sticking with a perfectly usable product, or investing the time and energy into learning a power one that gets them hooked.

If they’re both the same product, you can’t lose.

Nick Petri
Nick Petri
Behavioral Data Analyst

Nick is a Behavioral Data Analyst at Betterment. Previously he analyzed OpenView portfolio companies and their target markets to help them focus on opportunities for profitable growth.
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