Real Usability Success Stories

I love reading about proven usability success stories and case studies. Case studies provide useful information about business processes in action, and what their results can be. Here are the case studies of two well-known brands that have used Web usability to improve their bottom-line.

Using the Web to Cut Support Costs

UPS is one of the world's largest delivery companies. Since they deal with thousands of customers on a daily basis, customer service is extremely important to both the company and its clients. There are a lot of reasons why customers would want to get in touch with UPS. Perhaps they want to see if the package they sent yesterday has arrived, or maybe they want to find out the new delivery charges to a certain destination.

Delivery companies face a lot of the same queries every day, which results in high support costs, which technology could help avoid. And UPS was quick to see the Web as a potential money-saver.

Objective: Make Sure The Web Site Provides Added Value

As a large company with a large marketing budget, UPS has never found it hard to encourage people to visit its Web site. However, they needed to make sure that corporate clients would continue to use the site, rather than simply reverting to calling a customer service agent every time they needed to do something.

To make sure users would continue to use their site, UPS had to make sure their site was easy to use, and would provide customers with benefits that the telephone customer service agents could not. The key to achieving this was to develop a user-centric site.

Providing Users With New Services

When choosing which services to provide through their Web site, UPS was careful to consider the views of their customers. Asking the CEO for a list of desired features would have been useless, since the CEO does not mail packages on a daily basis. What would customers want, and more important, what would they need?

After conducting some market research, UPS found that most users have the same expectations of how the site should work. They simply want to go to the site, choose a service, see how much it costs and how long it will take to complete. And then, they want to be able to track what they have sent. Simple as that. UPS made sure their Web site provides all of these options.

Rakesh Sapra,'s Director of Interactive Marketing, pointed out that listening to users has resulted in many more new services being added to the site. "Now they can prepare a label, order supplies online, open an account online, find the nearest drop-off location or request a pick-up. I focus on really coming up with neat new things that ultimately serve the fundamental needs of our customers. It's my favorite part of my job!" he said.

User Experience is Key!

Sapra was quick to point out that the user experience of the site is key. He said, "If they [the users] don't have a terrific experience they won't come back and use the tools. Our brand is based on creating an unparalleled user experience on the phone, in person or on the Web. So we made sure the site is very easy-to-use and very intuitive."

To make sure that the site proves to be a pleasant experience for its users, UPS conducts extensive usability tests on the site. Test users are given a variety of tasks to complete on the site, and they are monitored to see if any there are any common problems. If there appears to be a usability flaw in the site, they change it and perform the tests again, until everything seems to be easy to use.

UPS has also found that visiting customers at their own premises helps. . Sapra says, "We observe them in the context of their work environment. The decision-making process varies with size and type of organization. It's not made in the shipping room alone! It's diffused throughout the organization."

And all of this testing seems to have worked. The average visitor can now accomplish almost any task on the site with just a few clicks. The most common tasks are clearly visible in the site's navigation bar, providing extremely easy access.


UPS has received numerous awards, thanks to their efforts. A number of prestigious sources such as Business 2.0 Magazine and CIO Magazine have acclaimed the site as one the best B2B Web sites around. Nearly ten million visitors go to the site every day!

Sapra and his team have continued to work hard on the site, and have developed the package tracking feature even further. This service is used by 3.5 million visitors a day, and has proven to be their biggest hit. No longer do millions of clients have to bombard a busy call center with questions. Instead they can find answers through the Web site in seconds. What a way to save money and improve customer satisfaction!

And what does Sapra think is the key to developing a good Web site? He says this, "The best way of getting people to come back to a site is not advertising. It's providing a great user experience."

Using Usability Testing to Get Results

Staples' Web development team and Human Factors International, Inc. (HFI) worked together to make sure provided a new improved user experience.

Since the improved site's May 2000 relaunch, measurements show that users have been happier with the buying process, are more likely to purchase items, and there has been a 67% increase in the the amount of visitors who have returned to the site after their first visit.

The independent business survey company, Bizrate, found that after surveying users, the redevelopment had improved the ease of placing orders, the overall purchasing experience, and the likelihood of repeat purchases.

The internal research taken out by also proved positive for the redevelopment. They discovered that 31% less people left the site immediately than before, with more 'blind-visitors' turning into new customers.


Since the relaunch, has ranked first in the office-supply industry in unique daily visitors. The week after Thanksgiving, when the Christmas shopping season begins, resulted in a 80% increase in visitors for Staples, compared to the market average of 40%.

The amount of repeat customers had increased too, with 300,000 repeat customers compared to 180,000 in the previous quarter. "This 67% jump speaks to the increased stickiness of site and the positive experience of a customer the first time through," says Colin Hynes, Director of Site Usability at

But have the usability improvements increased Staples' revenue? This isn't so easy to measure in Staples' case since Staples also undertook a number of marketing campaigns at the same time, which undoubtedly increased sales too. Furthermore, the booming economy was also beginning to slow in the second half of the year, but there's no doubt that's revenues have increased significantly.

The original site was launched in late 1998, about a year after Staples' main rivals had launched their own sites. But while Staples was late to launch its own e-commerce offering, their dedication to usability and user experience has led to them becoming the premier small-business destination site, leading many of its rivals. has proven by example why usability engineering is a necessity, and not a luxury, for e-commerce sites.