When Bad UX Signals Massive Opportunity

Every once in a while I discover a business that is succeeding despite terrible visual and user experience design.

This is a real anomaly these days, because over the last decade as engineering and manufacturing have become commodities, design has emerged as the key differentiator for breakout products.

Pretty much these days, you need awesome design to win.

To see this in action, look at Uber and Lyft. In the beginning they offered essentially the exact same service, but Uber had better UX design. It was easier to book a ride, take a ride, and leave a review. I believe this early UX advantage is what allowed Uber to become the market leader with Lyft trailing way behind.

Eventually Lyft realized that if they didn't invest in UX, they would continue to struggle. Recently they released an updated UX which is much improved. However it's likely too late. It'll probably take years or decades for Lyft to chip away at Uber's now gigantic lead.

Right now Uber's lead over Lyft is worth billions of dollars, and so it's fun to think about how much it would have cost Lyft to invest in creating a better UX a few years ago, when both companies were getting started.

Of course, It wouldn't have cost hundreds or even tens of millions of dollars. It wouldn't even have cost millions or hundreds of thousands of dollars. In fact one or two UX designers employed for a few weeks could likely have made a major difference in Lyft's early trajectory. We're talking a few weeks of work here. We're talking make my little car icon in Lyft point towards me while I'm watching my ride come to pick me up like Uber did. Simple small stuff could have made all the difference.

That's the power of UX design. One design session that costs a few hundred dollars can yield insights that make the difference between middling results and breakout success. One design insight can power a business for multiple years (like in the case of an "agony" filter for airfares at Hipmunk) or create a new category all together (as in Steve Job's insight to give the iPhone only 1 button).

And so when I discover a business succeeding despite bad user experience design, I get excited. Because if a business can succeed without wonderful UX, what amount of success is possible with awesome UX? What amount of success is possible by adding just a few design insights?

In the case of operating successful businesses with bad design, I bet we could find cases where $1,000 invested in design yields more than $1 Million dollars in new revenue (banks and health insurance companies come to mind). This is a 1000x return, and amazingly opportunities like this are out there.

These are the kind of slam-dunk projects designers love. If you know of a such a business, please let me know and we'll see if we can turn them into a case study :)