Is this the beginning of the “Success by UX” era?

Yesterday, while watching a bunch of video pitches from the 2011 SXSW Accelerator competition, I was amazed by how consistently user experience was the main point of differentiation. While some people see differentiation via user experience as a bit of a copout, there’s a lot of empirical evidence that suggests a product that solves a real problem with a simple, easy to use interface will succeed.

As an exmaple, let’s take a look at Hipmunk. By most standards, the flight and hotel booking industry is very crowded. A quick Google search for “cheap flights” will give you flight options from Expedia, Kayak, CheapOAir, Cheapflights, Travelocity, etc. Each site claims to be your best option, but actually slogging through all of the results is a nightmare. Which is why I love Hipmunk so much. It makes a brutal process painless. While most other sites are competing on price, Hipmunk competes on user experience and nails it.

When you listen to Adam Goldstein, co-founder of Hipmunk, talk in his pitch at SXSW (below), it’s obvious just how focused on UX they are. One question at the end asked for greater fine-tuning of the user’s price sensitivity to customize the agony algorithm. While this sounds great in theory, it adds an extra step into the process, moving it closer to the poor UX of all the other sites. Sure they could do it, but it hurts their core value, so they won’t.

After watching this video, and a few more like it, it got me thinking. I believe we are in the beginning of an era where new products with a great UX will rapidly take down established, but outdated players. You could make a valid argument that this is the normal lifecycle of tech, but there’s something different here. New entrepreneurs have never been so acutely aware of the importance of UX, and I think a lot of the credit goes to Apple.

Personal bias aside, it’s hard to dispute that creating an incredible user experience has been key to Apple’s success. You don’t get away with price points like that unless people are fanatic about your products. While it seems almost obvious now in hindsight, it really wasn’t 5 years ago. Take a look at Steve Ballmer laughing at the iPhone’s price point of $500. Now that Apple’s iPhone business brings in more revenue than all of Microsoft, it seems funny, but it wasn’t so clear back then.

With that in mind, what you now have is a bunch of young entrepreneurs, like myself, who have watched Apple take the iPod, iPhone, and iPad and disrupt the way entire industries work. That display of UX supremacy, in turn, has changed the way we think, and now we are acting on it.

It’s not just Hipmunk –  there are plenty of other young startups taking on big industries. CruiseWise, one of the early companies from Start-Up Chile, just launched a way to easily book cruises online (surprisingly nasty before). Dwolla is taking on the entire payments space to bypass the need for credit cards. There’s even some talk of Oracle being in trouble from companies like Workday. And that’s just a few of them.

I think it’s very possible that many of the established companies from the last 10 years will begin to struggle very soon. The gap in user experience is just too large. At some point, there’s going to be a tipping point where these new, easy to use products go mainstream. When exactly that happens, it’s hard to know. But right now, it feels like the momentum is gaining. Early adopters are jumping on board and the excitement is in the air.

I’m incredibly bullish on the disruptive potential here. One of the top priorities I have my for my startup is taking the UX from “good” to “incredible”. I want people to walk away raving about the user experience like I do with Hipmunk. That’s what’s going to fuel our growth and help us succeed. Because if we don’t, we’re going to be left behind, just like the established companies.

If you liked the Steve Ballmer video, you may also want to check out this article about Samsung and Sharp thinking TV’s are still about price, picture and size. Sounds a little similar to the mp3 and cellphone industries before the iPod and iPhone came along, right? If that’s their true vision, I can’t wait to see another industry fall to vastly superior UX.

  • Matt Rae

    Nailed it! This is a point so many people miss. It’s not a battle of the spec anymore, it’s how the specs are bundled that make a product superior. People hate it because you can’t quantify a good UX. (windows vs Mac debate) yes you can pack more specs into a PC cheaper… But it’s that un-quantifiable UX that takes the cake. Great Article!

  • Alexander Remie

    You’ve said it all. The experience.

  • BigMastiq

    Yes, you’ve nailed it but at the end UX is really subjective. I’ve tried hipmunk before and I hated it. Tried it now again after reading the article and same thing. I find it awfully organised and messy. To give an example I really love and that’s my default flight search engine.

    • Andrew Cross

      Agreed. UX is, and will always be, highly subjective. 

      • Anonymous

        UX may be subjective, but in time, UX will be dynamic and sites can tailor elements and layout to individual users in order to make the UX work for as many people as possible. Technology and data are making this increasingly possible. In 5 years, I think it will be laughable that we had one-size-fits-all UX’s in the first place.

  • Anonymous

    UX as a competitive advantage is just something people will need to get used to; it’s happening and will become normal in time.

    Not only did Apple win with both beautiful hardware and software UX, but other industries and market leaders have been winning on UX for a long time. 

    - Fashion: So little has to do with actual fabrics and quality; if the look and the brand make the user feel excitement, it’s often a winner
    - Music: No one seems to care how good someone’s voice really is or whether the artist wrote the song; with auto-tuning and ghostwriters, people buy into the vibe of music and the experience of the sound/general vibe the song gives off
    - E-Commerce: Zappos didn’t have better shoes or even prices some times. It’s UI, customer service, and ability to deliver ‘happiness’ helped it win.

    UX here is in contrast to ‘core technology’ and pricing, IMHO. At the end of the time, it seems bizarre that UX hasn’t mattered more before, but it seems next in the evolution of what wins online. First it was convenience (vs. offline), then pricing (as more online competitors existed), then it was better core technology, and now that most companies need to have the first three points nailed, UX is becoming the primary differentiator. 

  • Jason Sanders

    I wish this were the case.  Overall I’ve found that functionality is king.  For every example you cite, there’s a counter example.  I don’t believe that the iPhone won for design but rather for functionality: a whole map on a phone, tons of applications, email that actually works on the phone, youtube, etc

    Some other examples:
    - Mapquest still is used more frequently than Google Maps
    - Windows phone still hasn’t gained any traction vs. Android which has an inferior design

  • iCommenter

    Apples strength as user experience is secondary to their brilliant marketing.  From day one it was about being young and cool (ipod dancers anyone), and who doesn’t want that?  Once you hit a certain level of usability the rest is throw away.  I don’t know how many times every Apple product that was supposedly disruptive was found to exist in some form before.  The usability was out there, but Apple made it young and cool so people bought it.

    No one really cares how useful your app is, they just don’t want to be uncool.

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  • Anonymous

    I love this…
    “I’m incredibly bullish on the disruptive potential here. One of the top priorities I have my for my startup is taking the UX from “good” to “incredible”.”

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  • Franz

    In 2009 visual design was a big differentiator. In 2011 visual design already became a matter of course. In 2012 almost everyone focused on awesome UX. In 2013 awesome UX became a prerequisite to survive.

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