The Usability Gap: Designing the Right Products for SMBs

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Small business owners remain the great untapped segment for local marketing solution providers. There are 28 million small businesses in the United States. By any estimate, only a fraction of them are served today by any local marketing provider, despite overwhelming evidence that effective performance in local channels leads directly to increased store visits and top-line revenue. Why isn’t every small business using a local marketing solution?

One obvious answer is fragmentation, a problem that cuts in at least two directions. First, the local marketing ecosystem itself is fragmented. You might feel you’re doing a reasonable job of self-serve local marketing merely by claiming your Google listing and creating a Facebook page. But your presence on Yelp, Apple Maps and other platforms has a huge impact you may be neglecting entirely. A lack of understanding of the consumer activity across the complex local ecosystem may have led many SMBs to feel a false sense of security in their limited self-serve approaches to local marketing.

So too, fragmentation means that the local channel makes up only one piece of a larger marketing effort that includes loyalty, email, advertising, promotions, and other activities. Small business owners who have achieved a certain comfort level with an established channel like email marketing may feel reluctant to add one more thing to their list of responsibilities, regardless of our attempts to convey its value.

Several products exist today that do a reasonably good job of performing the basic services we in the industry know are needed in order to capture, manage, and optimize local listings on behalf of small businesses. But which among them would be listed by business owners themselves among their favorite products?

In my prior experience with large channels selling to SMBs, it was incredibly difficult at any kind of scale to get even a few minutes of the business owner’s time to complete a simple task, like phone number verification to claim a listing. The dream of a truly habit-forming product that small businesses use willingly and often, and that is well situated to grow virally like so many of the internet products we know and love, has so far stayed beyond our reach.

I’ve been thinking lately that we have all been approaching the problem from the wrong angle. We should start with the lipstick, not the pig. In this case, the pig is all the hard work we do on your behalf, all the complexity of setting up and maintaining local listings, and the relatively minor but still significant work that business owners themselves need to do in order to get the most out of those listings. The lipstick is our valiant attempt to make that process look prettier than it actually is. I think we can acknowledge that the façade has not been very convincing.

Whereas if we started out by thinking of the user, we might reach some very different conclusions. All successful products, according to models like the Hook Model developed by Nir Eyal, appeal to certain basics of human psychology. We want to solve problems, share good news, and alleviate boredom. We seek pleasure and avoid pain; we seek hope and avoid fear; we seek social acceptance and avoid rejection. These and other fundamentals drive our adoption of products from running shoes to laptops to social networks.

According to Eyal’s model, the basic UX of successful internet products like Facebook and Twitter follows four steps: a trigger that incites a user to take some action; the action itself; a reward that isn’t always the same; and further investment of time. These steps repeat themselves in an endless cycle when products are used habitually.

So for the Messenger app on your phone, a trigger might be the red circle in the app icon with a number indicating that you have new, unread messages. The trigger causes you to act, opening the app to see what messages you’ve received. The reward, the messages themselves, is always the same kind of thing but never with the same content: maybe an emoji from a friend, an inquiry from a Marketplace buyer, or a message from your mother.

Eyal calls this variable reward, and it’s a key to habit-forming products. Never quite knowing what you’re going to get sparks your curiosity whenever you see a new trigger, prompting you to take action.

The final step in the four-stage Hook Model is investment. To continue our Messenger example, this means a willingness on the part of the user to spend time engaging with content from others, sending replies, reaching out to old friends, exploring new features in the app and so on. Successful user engagement in Messenger can be measured both by a user’s likelihood to act on alert triggers, and by his or her investment of time in the app.

Eyal is sensitive to the argument that the Hook Model can be used to encourage addiction to technology, the subject in fact of a 60 Minutes piece this month on so-called “brain hacking” by companies like Google and Snapchat. But in Eyal’s view, ethics should always be a primary consideration of product design, and the Hook Model should never be used merely to foster habits. In fact, one might offer a counterargument that the Hook Model and similar approaches to creating engaging software are primarily about usability.

Usability is the crux of product design. Some products are built for power users – think of Google Analytics or Adobe Illustrator – and these products create an atmosphere where steep learning curves have a payoff in gained expertise and ability to deliver desirable, difficult-to-achieve results. But most products are built to appeal to ordinary users, meaning that their approach is simple, their learning curves are relatively flat, and their rewards are achieved with the kind of effort that doesn’t feel like effort.

Surely small business owners belong to the class of ordinary users. Expecting them to invest the time and energy to become power users is a good way to guarantee that your user base will remain small. This realization could lead to a very different and more fruitful approach to product design for the small business community.

Small business owners need consolidated functionality that reduces the sense of fragmentation while still offering a comprehensive solution to local SEO. More importantly, they need a means of approaching the local SEO problem based on building blocks any ordinary user can understand. Someone someday will crack this code, but I don’t think it’s going to happen if we can’t learn to listen to the needs and desires of the user to whom we’re trying to appeal.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi.