I was recently staffed on a customer web delivery project which began to face schedule challenges as it approached implementation. As a result of these challenges, several difficult decisions had to be made to ensure timely implementation, one of which was the postponement of "necessary" modifications to the customer's internet experience. The postponed modifications were re-scheduled for development immediately following rollout.
However, a funny thing happened on the way to the post-implementation development of these enhancements. Interestingly enough, customers were not the least bit bothered by features and functionality the project team considered most in need of remediation. Despite the fact that processes and data entry were not optimized, screens were not intuitive, information provided on emails was deficient, and no instructions or "Help" options were available, both the percentage of customers choosing the online channel and the product close rates exceeded expectations. While a few customers did contact the service center to ask questions, the volume of incoming calls was far lower than projected.
Most customers, when asked about their online experience, reacted positively concerning the system and its operability. Given the option of using more traditional channels, such as visiting a physical office or using a mail/paper channel, customers overwhelmingly preferred to conduct business over the web, despite the often sub-optimal interfaces available on their computers and phones.
This insight into customers' preference for conducting business online made me take a deeper look into my own preferences for this channel. Despite inconveniences and the occasional additional time commitment, accessing the internet using my laptop or smartphone is my preferred method for executing transactions. You name it --- plane tickets, dinner reservations, hotel reservations, health insurance information, presents and books --- there is a drawback to purchasing every one of these items online, but I don't care. Provide self-service as an option, and I will always choose to control my own destiny.
Although like me, many customers will accept the disadvantages of transacting business online, I am not recommending ignoring the customer experience. There are opportunities for improvement with most or all applications. However, when a project encounters challenges, the online customer experience may be an area where companies can "give" more than normal since there is more tolerance for internet experience imperfection than the application development industry and business executives are accustomed to accepting.
Perhaps an even more important lesson is not to assume your customers' opinions and expectations match your own or those of your project sponsors. Adopting the practice of utilizing empirical evidence concerning customer needs and expectations is significantly more valuable than relying on the opined needs and expectations of project team members or sponsors. Informal and formal customer surveys, focus groups, and similar exercises can prove valuable when designing Internet applications. Ultimately, to be successful in creating a viable online strategy, companies must know their customers and invest their constrained resources wisely.