Why SaaS Companies Suck at Making Usable Products

As a SaaS company develops and builds its software, the product is often tested and adjusted based on its usability. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that all too often, because those products are first built by those developers (starting with the founder-CTO’s vision of how technology may solve a problem), the company pays little attention to the usability from the perspective of the person that really matters. No, it’s not the developer. It’s the customer.

Of course, not all SaaS companies make that mistake. It would be a gross generalization to lump every company into the same net. But the truth is, SaaS companies that are good at creating products that are built and developed based on the feedback and needs of the end user are the exception, not the rule.

That’s a hard truth that a lot of SaaS companies don’t want to hear. But there are several culprits to a the lack of software usability:

  • There’s too much emphasis placed on the developer deciding correctly how the end user would or should use the product. It’s not the developer’s job to read the user’s mind.
  • Most companies in the start-up years will accept any customer that wants to buy their solution, rather than focusing on particular type (segment) of customers. That creates numerous different use patterns that make it difficult to tailor the product based on user feedback.
  • The development team starts to evolve the solution to meet the inbound requirements from the disparate customer segments. That creates complexity in the product and results in the 80-20 syndrom (80% of users use 20% of functionality).
  • The company starts to focus on a couple of core segments, but it’s often too late. The development team is forced to waste time untangling the mess, redesigning the product more specifically to the new core segments.
  • Once the company has reached reasonable scale and has access to capital, it finally invests in a UI/UX engineer to improve the user experience. Often times, it’s too late.

The core underlying issue her is that early stage SaaS companies tend to view the recruitment of a UI/UX engineer as an expensive luxury. Yes, those engineers can be expensive. But companies must realize that a usability engineer is worth their weight in gold (which, in this case, is new customer revenue and higher renewal rates). Those companies shouldn’t worry about how much that person will cost them. Instead, they should focus on how much they’ll earn the company.

Fixing Usability

I like Steve Krug’s approach. He worte a couple of do-it-yourself books that addressed an approach to finding and fixing usability problems. His latest book, Rocket Surgery Made Easy, focused on two key opportunities:

  • Usability testing is one of the best things people can do to improve web-based solutions.
  • Because most organizations can’t afford to hire someone to do testing for them on a regular basis, everyone should learn to do it themselves.

Steve’s suggestion is to take a very simple, layman’s approach to usability testing. Every site has problems and most of those problems are easy to find if you proactively look for them. In that way, usability testing works because observing users use your product makes for better product design.

Here are a few other things Krug suggests considering when developing a simple usability testing methodology:

  • A morning a month is enough. Every month, bring in a handful of users to test your product in a scripted usage environment. The user behavior is monitored and recorded, followed by discussions on what the development team learned about usability issues.
  • Start earlier than you think makes sense. Developers have a tendency to finish a product before getting it tested. Start earlier than that, preferably while the product is being developed. The more agile and immediate the feedback, the sooner the development team will be able to address design improvements.
  • Recruit testers loosely and grade off a curve. Don’t over think who you should invite to the tests. Ideally you would find the perfect fit to your customer persona, but don’t lose time trying to find them. Most usability problems will be found by whoever you use.
  • Be disciplined about building the agenda, script, and test cases. Make sure that you have your infrastructure in place for a seamless test.
  • Make it a spectator sport. Invite your developers to the test (not in the same room, but through a camera). The more developers that see users actually struggling with the product, the more likely that they will retain that memory when they’re coding.
  • Focus ruthlessly on the most serious problems. If you submit yourself to the temptation of tackling the easier problems first, you will never get rid of the most serious problems.
  • When fixing problems, try to do the least that you can do. There are two principles for fixing things: tweak, don’t redesign and take something away.

Make it a Company-wide Priority

It’s worth extending the concept of product usability to the overall business development of a start-up. The two are related, as Steve Blank’s book the Four Steps to the Epiphany lays out. Blank correlates his thoughts from that book in an online presentation about The Customer Development Methodology. Here are a few things I took away from it:

  • Don’t exclude your prospective customers from the early product development cycle. Engage your prospects early on and build in their feedback within an agile product development cycle.
  • Avoid ramping up your sales and marketing support before you release your product. The founders should be the first marketers and sales reps. I’ve written more about this here.
  • Begin the customer development cycle alongside the product development cycle. You should have measurable customer development milestones that mimic the milestones of product development. Make them meaningful and not product centric.
  • Stop selling your product and start listening for the customer’s pain point. By doing that, you’ll learn how the pain manifests itself and how the customer wants that pain relieved.
  • Develop a repeatable sales and marketing process. More on SaaS Sales Models here.
  • Adopt an Agile approach to your customer development cycle.
  • Begin ramping up your company once you’ve figured out the true alignment between your target customer, their pain point, your solution, and the sales/marketing experience that your customers want to be taken through. I’ve written about the Ideal Path to Expansion Stage in a previous post on my blog.

The final step for SaaS companies is to raise venture capital. But that should only be done once everything else is in place. If a company isn’t capitally and operationally efficient, then it’s not ready to consider a capital investment. The idea is to do more with less and Eric Ries does a great job describing that concept by coining it the Lean Startup.

Why is all of this so important for expansion stage SaaS companies? Because so many of them have adopted agile product development. While Agile has dramatically increased the output of their development teams, it’s also placed a lot of  pressure on product usability. The bottom line is that if the product isn’t usable, all of the product development team’s work and the increased output brought on by Agile is virtually useless.

Truthfully, companies can create competitive advantage through better product usability. So, rather than cranking out new product features, focus on what you have and how you can make it more user friendly.

The Chief Executive Officer

Firas was previously a venture capitalist at Openview. He has returned to his operational roots and now works as The Chief Executive Officer of Everteam and is also the Founder of nsquared advisory. Previously, he helped launch a VC fund, start and grow a successful software company and also served time as an obscenely expensive consultant, where he helped multi-billion-dollar companies get their operations back on track.
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