“Experience Downtime”: How trust is as important as usability

“The site’s down.”

How many times have you said or heard these words? If you are in the tech industry like me, you’ve probably lost count. If you are the typical consumer, odds are you have heard this a time or two yourself. Uptime is a key focus of all IT vendors, and a real selling point for services such as web hosting and cloud computing. Companies compete for the highest uptime percentages, and use them to sell their Internet-based services to Enterprise customers.

(Full disclosure – my employer, Microsoft, is one such company).

The key thing about uptime and availability is it instills confidence and reassures users. And UX practitioners don’t spend enough time understanding and thinking about this, in my opinion. As designers, we focus on interfaces and content – of course, because that is what people interact with day-in and day-out. But confidence and trust is just as important as this, and in many ways even more so.

I go back to my favorite metaphor: baselines. Ten years ago, if a site was unresponsive we shrugged. Today, we yell at our devices when a site does not load immediately. I see this with my own personal experience – my family was able to finally get a cable modem in our house, as opposed to the DSL connection we have had for over a decade. The frustration I and my wife and sons felt every day was a major emotional strain on a regular basis.

Yes, I know, “first world problems” – but when the Super 8 motel you stay at on a family vacation has a better connection than the one in your own home… well, you can see where emotions get heightened. And when the connection started repeatedly dropping, when my sons had school work to do.. Well, that adds yet another level of frustration.

The thing is, this type of “experience downtime” has a halo effect – when I was shopping for a new wireless cell phone provider I quickly decided to avoid AT&T like the plague. Why? Because they are the ones that provided my subpar home DSL service – and would never provide any upgrade path or improve their offering to me. The person who was GIVING THEM MONEY.

Trust and confidence in a service, once lost, is really hard to recover. That old saying that it takes 3 times as much money to gain a new customer as it does to retain an existing one? Very true. And most customers don’t complain about downtime – many just make an emotional decision to not “reward” bad service.

Because that is why they call it “service availability.” Because it is a service. Technology – all of it – should exist to service user needs, not get in the way. And companies also need to realize one more thing… when the service goes down, whether it lasts an hour or a day, it gives users a moment to potential reflect and think, “Do I really NEED to use this?”

Which you definitely don’t want to see happen. Because they may decide they don’t.

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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