Do complex user experiences really cause 50% of product returns?

Customer Product Returns1 Do complex user experiences really cause 50% of product returns?The day after Christmas, I spent the day at an absolutely mobbed shopping mall (Bellevue Square) swamped with people returning gifts. And that reminded me to write this blog post about product returns I’ve been thinking about for a long time and it seems like a good theme to welcome 2012 in with.

Complexity & Cognitive Friction are BAD for Business

Research shows that complexity is bad for business. Anything that causes “cognitive friction” is almost always part of a recipe for failure.

What is cognitive friction?

Quite simply, it’s anything that causes your users or customers to think or work harder than they need to.

And cognitive friction starts the customer pain cycle that leads to a variety of negative effects for your company’s user experience and financial bottom line.

“Malfunctioning Products” = functioning products with poor user experience?

In 2006 a graduate student published some research on this topic that received a lot of attention. Elke den Ouden (@elkedenouden), a Dutch graduate student at the Technical University of Eindhoven, found that 50% of all “malfunctioning” products returned to stores, are not actually malfunctioning.

Pause on this fact for a minute, it’s quite staggering in its implications.

At the company level, poor usability can show up as poor sales. When products are low quality or have poor user experiences, consumers generally figure it out very quickly these days.

Unhappy, angry consumers are likely to use social media channels and voice their frustration. They may tweet about it, post it on Facebook, write a blog post, post a video on YouTube, and so on.

In our ever connected world, it’s nearly impossible for companies to hide bad products, and the word spreads quickly on the internet.

What is not measured (properly), is not managed

There’s a famous quote from business guru Peter Drucker “what gets measured, gets managed.”

And a more “hidden” way that poor usability occurs is in less visible and less direct channels – ones that are often not measured or monitored and they often go undetected.

For example – poor usability may show up as product complaints in the customer support channels – e.g. call center or online customer support. Unless the company is being open to the feedback and tracking it at the proper level, they will often just fail to see and hear the data, sometimes for years.

Call centers often do not tracking user experience feedback with granularity. Why? Because the primary KPI’s used by call center managers are often different types of metrics. focusing on call times, hold times, etc.

In other words, these issues can go unnoticed for a long time and not be circled back to internal product development and design teams who then do not hear or see the data.

Also, if the company does not integrate their internal forms of customer feedback across products, channels and internal disciplines, the big picture is often lost.

The result – executives often miss this feedback because of a lack of proper tracking of customer experience issues. Ultimately, the customer feedback loop becomes broken.

Even worse, this feedback is sometimes ignored.

Sometimes customer feedback problems or complaints are seen internally as “nuisance calls” – and executives may dismiss them. The result is the same – the issues fail to receive attention within the company, the problems persist, and the products are not improved.

Impatient Consumers = Low Effort + Quick Product Returns!

Sometimes people in high tech have the mindset that customers will “learn how” to use their products.

They imagine the consumer reading the manual.

Or searching for online help and support.

But these scenarios are somewhat infrequent and customers give up more frequently than we in the industry think, as this research points out.

Note: This is why observing for major usability roadblocks in OOBE (out of box experience) usability evaluation research is so critical for project success. OOBE evaluations examine initial setup and usage of a product, app, service, software, hardware, etc. If the initial experience is broken, customers often do not advance in using the product.

Important Take-Aways From This Research

Here’s one of the most important take-aways from Dr. den Ouden’s research:

The research showed the average American consumer would fumble with a new device for only 20 minutes – before giving up and returning it to the store. 

This frustration level applied to a wide variety of consumer electronics: cell phones, DVD players and mp3 players.

Also, she took some industry professionals – a group of managers from Philips (the well known Dutch electronics company) to take home a handful of products to use over the weekend.

Most of these tech savvy managers failed to get the products to work.

The results were the same – “novice” consumers AND the “expert” industry professionals – both failed!

She put this in clear perspective in a quote from Inside Steve’s Brain (2009):

“Product developers, brought in to witness the struggles of average consumers, were astounded by the havoc they created.” 

How To Apply These Findings to Improve Your Products and Services

Here’s some thoughts on how you can take action on this content.

1. Conduct an OOBE (out-of-box-experience) on your product or service to look at the initial experience of setting up the product or service and initial usage. This should represent an unstructured usability approach where the focus is on natural observation of user behavior.

TIP: Online research is typically the wrong approach for this type of study for a variety of reasons.

2. Identify and prioritize the top usability and user experience issues.

3. Partner with your call center/operations people and see if you can work together to get more precise tracking from email and phone channels. Work together to better quantify the user experience issues across various customer feedback channels and create a more integrated, holistic perspective of the user experience across all feedback channels. Update the tracking metrics and track them over time. Scorecards work well for this.

4. Take the top issues and communicate them within the company to increase awareness of how things actually are and then track improvements over time.

5. Fix those issues and improve your usability and user experience.

6. Make this research effort a continuous process – not a one-time event.

Do you think complex user experiences are behind most product returns – what has your experience been? And if you work in the industry how are you helping to improve user experiences? Please contribute a comment to the discussion below and share your opinion and experience.

  • Complex products aren’t problematic…complicated ones are. There’s a difference.

  • Coburn Hawk

    I was almost prevented from reading this article by bad UX. the link was shared on my Facebook wall. I attempted to open it on my iPad and I was taken out of the Facebook app and dumped into Maps with a pin in the location of the Customer Experience labs in Seatlle. Were you attempting to be ironic by showing what it is like to be a frustrated consumer? 🙂

  • Steve

    Interesting topic…but hope you learned a lesson: Don’t return things to shopping malls the day after X-mas. 😉