The value of superior UX? Priceless, but awfully hard to measure

With greater attention to user experience (UX) design comes greater debate over its ROI. Can this even be measured?

Let's face it -- when it comes to measuring the return on investment for user experience (UX), all the traditional metrics fall down flat. For today's organizations, you simply can't put a price on the value of delivering an incredibly satisfying and rewarding experience to customers and users. That value percolates across all parts of the enterprise -- well beyond customer service.

Also: UX Design-as-a-Service: Nice idea, but only part of the story

The debate about the ROI of UX has been heating up lately. Alan Cooper, an ancestry thinker and software alchemist, recently posted that the question about the ROI of UX is "the most idiotic question ever asked." Why? Because organizations really don't pay attention to or even care about the value of superior UX, he states.

The proof is in the pudding, he writes in this scathing indictment:

There are far, far more 'UX designers' employed today than there were 20 years ago, and yet most of the newly created software I use today suffers from the same interaction errors that were around 20 years ago. The failures of contemporary software include some of the most basic, elemental, and egregiously unnecessary violations of good interaction design principles that were called out and vanquished by the '90s..... These are well- and widely-known user interaction failures and it is inexplicable and unforgivable that they continue to resurface in new products today.

The problem, Cooper continues, is that managers and executives outside of the bubble remain skeptical about investing any more than they have to in UX -- to them, it's a dark art. So, they ask: "What is the ROI of UX?" Asking about ROI, of course, is a manager's way of expressing doubts. "They aren't seeking enlightenment," Cooper says.

Is Cooper onto something? Jared Spool, co-founder of Center Centre and founder of UIE, pushed back against this notion, suggesting that the value of good design isn't always apparent from a strictly business point of view. "It might be because the value hasn't been discovered," he states. "Not all value is obvious."

In UX design, he continues "ROI is often about eliminating poor design."

Some industry specialists have attempted to put a monetary value on superior UX design. A recent report from CareerFoundry estimates that UX design work delivers a 100-fold return on investment, without even counting the soft benefits. Every $1 investment in UX translates to returns of at least $100 dollars, the report's authors illustrate -- mainly through e-commerce and customer-facing interactions. Add to this the softer, but just as important, ancillary benefits: "fewer support calls, increased customer satisfaction, reduced development waste, and lower risk of developing the wrong idea."

Also: What Google is learning about user experience

Spool builds upon this point, noting that with UX design, "ROI is about finding an improvement to the organization's financial bottom line. The obvious place designers go when trying to calculate the bottom line is to ask the question, 'If I change the design, how much more income could we generate?'" He adds that good design leads directly to lower costs. "A much-overlooked portion of design's value is that poor design is very costly to an organization. Poor design generates costly support calls. It causes lost sales or dropped subscriptions. Poor design can increase development costs through rework and waste."

Here's an example of how poor UX leads to greater costs -- and customer frustration, Spool illustrates:

Say you get many support calls because the design doesn't do something the users expect. That's a high cost due to a poor design decision. If it's easy, you could ballpark a number. (Number of calls x average support call cost.) You may not need the math if everyone agrees that's likely expensive. High value doesn't always need to be quantified; it just needs to be seen.

Too often, businesses don't invest enough in UX design and development, which gets very costly. "The world we live in is not built for the user," the CareerFoundry report states. "More often than not, products are built simply with the goals of the business in mind, forgetting the user's own goals and needs. So much so, that in e-commerce alone failure to invest is creating a billion-dollar loss of revenue, a loss that will become a trillion-dollar issue over the next three years."

The key is to get out ahead of the business in promoting superior UX design. "Smart design leaders don't wait until their boss asks them," says Spool. "Smart design leaders are pointing out costs and how good design would reduce them before their boss even thinks to ask. When they can, smart design leaders start decreasing costs without being asked at all."