UX means User eXperience and SaaS means Software as a Service. And when your company is adopting SaaS solutions to fuel business processes, UX means everything.“I look at how applications used to be built: You started with the database and then you threw some type of UI (User Interface) on top of that,” said app development veteran Curt Raffi. “Today it’s really different. You have to understand how the user is going to interact with the tool or app you’re offering, and everything else has to follow. It’s all about usability.”

“Traditionally, there really hasn’t been a big focus on UX for SaaS,” agreed Steve Holm, the director of design at ProsperWorks. “In our space—sales software— most of it looks like it’s been designed by engineers. And regardless of what it looks like, people have been using it anyway. It’s only recently that elegant UX has become a differentiator.”

UX goes beyond usability

The term UI has been a part of the vernacular since personal computing was a baby. So it is not surprising most people think UI and UX are interchangeable. Experts, however, say UX really means usability… and then some.

According to UX specialist Frank Guo, UX actually covers everything from ease of use to engagement to visual appeal. He explains user experience captures all of the psychological and behavioral aspects of users’ interactions with products.

In a post on his UXMatters blog, Guo maps four main elements of UX to questions for prospective users:

  • Value: Is the product useful?
  • Usability: Is it easy to use?
  • Adoptability: Is it easy to get started?
  • Desirability: Is it fun and engaging?

Speeding up the “time to delight”

To build on Guo’s list, Holm introduced the importance of speed as a factor that improves the user experience, calling it “time to delight.”

“We built our service on Google Apps to integrate into what our customers are already doing so that we can provide new users with insights in the first 30 seconds,” Holm said. “It’s our hope that people try ProsperWorks and find it useful quickly—and they’re hooked. They’re delighted with the service and they dive in deeper and start to see a lot of value.”

Holm said SaaS products often have a laborious onboarding process and, therefore, a slow “time to delight.” New users typically need to talk to multiple specialists to get started, import data, integrate it into the company’s workflow, and, finally, understand the value of the solution.

In contrast, Holm stressed that a “delightful” platform must:

  • Offer clear and consistent usability from the first interaction
  • Create a clean onboarding process free from obstacles
  • Avoid anything that could sidetrack users with unnecessary steps or distractions
  • Remove all but the most critical menu items or link options

Great UX at work

Want to avoid some common SaaS UX danger zones? Look for the following:

Easy user set up—SaaS features often require too much user input. Instead, the solution should help new users focus on one task at a time without demanding too much information or confusing them.

Proactive help—Users find knowledge-based articles helpful. Plus, good UX provides contextual help in the form of user-activated tool tips for field definitions and popover-style dialogs. In fact, great SaaS solutions are built to be directive. According to Holm, old software looks for the user to tell it what to do, but a new breed of SaaS turns that around and tells the user what to do to accomplish a task.

Consistent navigation—Beware of software providers that fail to maintain consistent navigational elements across screens. Your solutions provider must make consistent navigation a priority, especially over the course of numerous updates.

Interface options—One-size-fits-all is a dangerous approach to interface design and often means the platform is optimized strictly for power users. The SaaS platform you select should segment features by user type and offer advanced settings only for those capable of taking advantage of them.

UX is the key differentiator for SaaS

Here is a common scenario: You like what you see in a SaaS solution. You try it. You buy it. Then you bail.

Why does this happen?

According to Paul Guirata of Catalyst Resources, a leader in UX for SaaS, software providers fail to make it easy for you to depend on the platform. Using the solution actually should be habit forming. Guirata explains the UX design should make using the product rewarding and personalized.

For far too long, software customers have tolerated clunky interfaces, onboarding headaches, and long learning curves. UX is now a product differentiator (or it isn’t). If your SaaS provider can’t deliver an intuitive and consistently rewarding user experience, you need to find one that can.