User Experience Design - Why it matters

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User experience design. Three distinct words that in the digital sector mean so much more when they are combined as one phrase. 9 times out of 10 the quality of the user experience will be the difference between whether a site is a success or a failure. Because, if you’re not providing an optimised end user experience, what is the point? 

But what do we really mean by this? There are many definitions of user experience (UX) out there, some far more detailed and convoluted than others, but this one by the International Organization for Standardization puts it particularly succinctly:

‘A person’s perceptions and responses that result from the use or anticipated use of a product, system or service’. 
- ISO 9241-210:2010 - Ergonomics of human-system interaction 

Or put even more simply by Matthew Magain in his excellent illustrated video, UX is ‘the design behind the design’. 

In established practice the Boersma T-Model highlights the multiple disciplines that are incorporated in user experience design, there are:

  • Research
  • Usability 
  • Information Architecture 
  • Interaction Design 
  • Visual Design
  • Content 

These six facets, a mix of design, interaction and user experience, make up the practice of UX design. Generally people who are dedicated in this role have differential weightings in these overlapping authorities. 

Many view a digital project in silos – either based on content requirements or a design that they like, not thinking about the principles of architecture and usability. You wouldn’t build a house based on where your furniture currently sits, so why build a website in this way? 

The umbrella that holds them all together is project management. Therefore becoming a leader in the field is no mean feat, especially for a practice that does not get the kudos and credibility it rightly deserves. Many professionals choose to be either specialists, hybrids or generalists

What makes a good user experience?

Having covered the foundations of the subject area and those who practice it, it is important to make the distinction between what is going to be an average experience for the user and what is going to be an outstanding experience. 

Richard O’Flynn recently wrote an article on What Makes Great UX stating that usability is only the tip of the iceberg. One of the founding fathers of the concept, Peter Morville, represents the essential elements in his User Experience Honeycomb:

honeycomb.png

Taking each point in turn, information on a website/application/blog et al, must be:

  • Useful: Your content should be original and fulfil a need
  • Usable: Site must be easy to use
  • Desirable: Image, identity, brand, and other design elements are used to evoke emotion and appreciation
  • Findable: Content needs to be navigable and locatable onsite and offsite
  • Accessible: Content needs to be accessible to people with disabilities
  • Credible: Users must trust and believe what you tell them

List extracted from Usability.gov article. 

We recently worked on a project with the Finance Division at the University of Oxford and used these principles to revitalise their users’ experience. In user-testing it became apparent that the content ordering was not logical and there were not enough icons and images to identify the content. So we designed new icons which are now used consistently across all of the restructured subject areas, and the pages use the same format and style principles. The interface is now much cleaner, despite any restrictions of the existing system. 

Oxford Finance Site Process Page

Copyright: University of Oxford

Their content is now much more user friendly, valuable and accessible, putting the site in a very good position for a content management system change in the near future. We’ll be compiling a full case study on this project shortly, so check out our Work section in due course. 

Let’s now drill down to some of the specific concepts and trends coming through in the discipline to put some tangible examples of the theory in practice. 

Responsive Design

Accessible everywhere is a key part of successful UX design. Websites that respond to multiple screen dimensions make complex transactions simpler and greatly improves usability. However, only 1 out of every 8 websites currently use this approach. We believe in a different way, which is why all of the websites we create for our clients are responsive as standard. For more on this concept, see our blog post on web trends from last summer. Many may view this feature as ‘non-essential’, but with mobile usage taking over desktop for the first time last year, it is one that cannot be ignored. This does come with a caveat though:

“… if you are reading this sentence and you have anything to do with a design project, please do remember that 'mobile first' shouldn't mean 'mobile only”.
-Dan Barker, eConsultancy 17 crucial web trends for 2015

Although mobile only users do exist, the intention is to make it a great user experience on any device not prioritising one over the other. People still carry out their most important tasks and purchasing decisions on traditional devices and tablets so the movement must also cater for non-mobile as well. Thus, more parity in experience is required. 

Born Slippy

The Godfather of UX, UX Mag, recently predicted that in 2015 there will be a rise in ‘Slippy’ UX. In basic terms this means that design will be functional and minimalist so that when glanced at it can be understood. We are all very busy people after all. The technology used to enhance our lifestyle and transport pursuits will all rely on this conceptual design. In previous years, a principle that is still relevant to website usage is ‘sticky’ user experience, i.e. experiences that engage users so much they will continue to come back for more. This is what I’m aiming for with this blog post… no pressure. 

Progressive Enhancement

In November 2014 I was enlightened by a presentation by Andy Parker, of the agency Clearleft, called ‘Designing with content first’. This talk made me feel compelled to write this very post about why being passionate about the user matters above all else.

Andy talked of layering web technologies so that the content is always accessible, regardless of access method, connectivity, software, or hardware being used. This is in parallel to many of the definitions of twenty years ago, but it is rarely implemented in practice. If we focus on designing something first to allow for pre-defined content buckets to be put into it, it’s not going to work in real-life and if by fluke it does it won’t be an enhancement. Resembling the same thing, just in a prettier box than you started with, is not how we should design web and applications. 

A working example of when UX goes bad 

Frequently cited in the tech blogosphere as a ‘failure’ we once again bring up the contested subject of Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system. Those of you who have not had the pleasure, this is what the starting dashboard looks like: 

Windows 8 Dashboard

Microsoft’s you-turn to reintroduce the start button to an operating system that was previously so familiar to users, was an admission on their part that they had designed an interface for a future that didn’t arrive fast enough. The Windows team had anticipated a fast shift towards touch interfaces, removing the existence of keyboards entirely. The reality was that this shift was, and still is, a way off. 

In terms of consumer expectations, the complete loss of familiarity built up over years of brand loyalty was under threat with many frustrated users sailing away to Apple, who rubbed their hands together gleefully. The USP with Apple products is not just about the ‘cool’ factor, the joy is in the simplicity of use. Every specific detail is about how the product works for the user, not the other way around. As the late Steve Jobs famously said:

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Although on much more epic proportions than the average digital project, and I admit it is very easy to jump on the criticism bandwagon, one thing we can all take away from this is that whether large or small: design is not independent or greater than context or content so it shouldn't be created in that way. 

Conclusion 

In all of our new website and application projects we strip back the requirements and think about the client and their users first. As creators we strive to be innovators - challenging the status quo of what good looks like and how it works. Whether this is in the form of a web review or a full scale site restructure which incorporates user testing. These approaches allow us to understand the audience first before the elements that will fulfil their needs. 

The trends and terminology will evolve over time, particularly in consideration of the emerging technologies coming through, but the principles remain the same – people’s perceptions will always matter utmost, especially when it comes to brand integrity. So before you start your next new web design project, design or otherwise, always start with the ‘why’. 

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