Looks Matter


You’ve probably heard of a company called Square: it manufactures a doo-dad that attached to your mobile phone or tablet that allows small merchants to accept credit cards. Well, Square went public yesterday, and the stock popped nicely, earning the six year old company a market valuation of $2.9 billion. That’s an exciting story in and of itself, but what really jumped out at me was a comment made yesterday by Jack Dorsey, Square’s founder. He said, “We’re not going out there to say we’re getting rid of the banks or card networks. We’ve just put a much cleaner face on that infrastructure.”

Yes, this young company with the multi-billion dollar valuation sees itself, in effect, as a user interface company. Square isn’t trying to disrupt the existing payments networks. It is simply trying to make them more easily accessible.

Certainly, most data publishers are well aware of the importance of the user interface and the overall user experience. But here’s a stunning example of a company that has built its entire business on providing a simpler, easier customer experience.

Thinking about Square this way made me realize it is not an isolated case. Another company that caught my eye recently, called HoneyInsured, seeks to take on an even bigger challenge. HoneyInsured is a front-end to the healthcare.gov site where consumers seek to select insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act. Think back to all the horror stories around the launch of healthcare.gov and then consider HoneyInsured’s claim: it can identify the best health plan for you if you answer just four simple questions. A complex process becomes simplicity itself.

While all of this is very cool and cutting edge, it’s really not all that new. Think of the number of services (e.g., EDGAR Online) that sprung up to put user-friendly interfaces on the SEC EDGAR database – while EDGAR was completely free to use, these services proved that lots of people would pay for smarter, simpler and easier access.

As the data market evolves, we are increasingly seeing that the interface and the overall user experience matter almost as much as the data itself. The rapid shift to mobile devices has forced data providers to simplify and often dumb down their products to provide an adequate experience on these small screens. And the larger trend of users not having the inclination to read (either your user manual or the content itself) is also forcing content companies to simplify their interfaces. And that’s no small challenge when users are simultaneously screaming for both simplicity and more powerful analytics.

The bottom line is that data presentation matters … a lot. Your user interface can become a prime sales benefit, or a critical competitive weakness. We’ve certainly seen examples of market incumbents being challenged by upstart competitors with largely the same data but much better and fresher presentation and ease of use.

Having great data is now a minimum requirement. Putting tools and analytics around your data is the current battleground. But we’re quickly seeing that the next one will be the presentation layer – the “last mile” problem of translating your data and tools into something users can engage with easily and immediately, and make sense of just as easily. Are you giving your user interface the attention it deserves?