The Importance of User Experience Design

User Experience (UX) has recently been getting a lot of attention when it comes to its application to digital services. In this article, we touch on the current state UX in the industry and why you should care about it.

What is User Experience?

User experience (UX) refers to a person’s emotions and attitudes about using a particular product, system or service.
Wikipedia

User experience is not a new concept but its application to digital products is a relatively new and an exciting area of study. Principles of UX can be applied to any process that involves human-computer interaction. Since humans connect with their environment in an emotional way, it’s no surprise that UX has found its way into the digital product design market.

Why should we care about User Experience?

An increasing number of our daily functions now incorporate use of technology. Whether we are at work, at home or travelling, technology continues to automate our lives. With the introduction of pocket-sized computers (smartphones), we now have, more than ever, developed a personal and almost symbiotic relationship with technology. Invention of touchscreen and voice command have brought us human-computer interactive experiences there were once only dreamt of in science fiction.

As industry innovates and expands the horizons of what is technologically possible, UX researchers continue to strive and find ways in order to make complex human-computer interaction more seamless and transparent. It is a result of applied UX research that we never leave our homes without our smartphone. Long gone are the days when we had to face a steep learning curve to perform even the basic functions on a computer. Instead, we see small children effortlessly swiping on tablet before developing ability to speak.

As a consequence of applied UX concepts, we now expect digital products to interact with us a certain way. If these principles of UX are ignored during the design process, virtually any digital product is  guaranteed to fail … no matter how many great functions it has.

The User Centered Design (UCD) Movement

Digital systems are becoming complex and sophisticated to meet the challenging demands of users. UCD ensures that its not the end user who gets punished for the ever growing complexity of systems. Such systems must be designed so they can abstract the underlying complexity and make it invisible to the user. Memorable UX ensures that users will trust the system and continue using it in future. Ignoring UCD can mean poor user engagement and hence big losses for the business.

We built interaction based on what we thought worked — we designed for ourselves. The focus was on aesthetics and the brand, with little to no thought of how the people who would use the website would feel about it.

There was no science behind what we did. We did it because the results looked good, because they were creative (so we thought) and because that was what our clients wanted.
– Jacob Gube, Smashing Magazine

Image credits: Smashing Magazine

Image credits: Smashing Magazine

 

The importance of UCD came up as a rude awakening for companies like Microsoft and Nokia when huge chunks of their business was taken over by Apple. Apple learnt from its failures of the past (early Macintosh and Newton era) and built a successful franchise of products centered around UX.

 

UX & Web Industry

UX is paramount when it comes to products served over the web; let it be corporate websites, productivity tools, online retail outlets or social networks. UX design decisions involve intricate choice of fonts, placement of menus, call-to-action elements, product and services display, checkout processes, etc to stir emotions and make a memorable experience.

mailchimp-humour

Mailchimp uses quirky humour to keep users engaged

 

Over the course of years, UX in Web Industry has matured. Well established trends can be observed across a variety of web based services.

 

Common trends in UX

Common trends in UX among major online retailers

 

Despite tried and tested trends, startups continue to invent more efficient workflows of consuming online services. A recent startup success story is Slack, that took a big chunk of users away from the big players in workplace management services.  Between January 2015 and October 2015, Slack’s user base grew from 8000 to over a million active users. The Financial Times wrote in March 2015 that Slack was the first business technology to have crossed from business into personal use since Microsoft Office and the BlackBerry. Companies as big as eBay, Sony, Yelp, and NBCUniversal use Slack everyday, replacing industry standard tools such as Dropbox and conventional email.

Slack Apps offer unified experience across different devices

Slack Apps offer unified experience across different devices

Web solutions are developed to solve very specific problems and for that reason, it is imperative that we listen to our customers. UX emcompasses a vareity of aspects but they can be summarised into 3 interconnected principles: functionality, usability and performance.

ux-balance

Good UX is all about the balance

 

If we compromise on any one of these principles, the whole system suffers.

Functionality: Support for browsers and devices, website features and options

Performance: Website load speed, SEO, Responsiveness and adaptability

Usability: User interface, accessibility, navigation

For example, if a website has a very fancy user interface (usability),  its performance and functionality is going to suffer (too many visual assets slowing down the website). Prioritising UX, we can focus our attention on what matters the most for the customer and ignore all the fluff.

Know your audience

Since no size fits all, it is important to research and understand customer demographics. This includes (but not limited to) age, gender, ethnicity, nationality, language and religion. It is always more challenging to design products that adhere to a wider demographic spectrum (such as government or ecommerce websites). Hence, UX is something that is not fixed and may keep changing depending on the customer demographic. More complex system can allow adaptive UX where the system is smart enough to detect customer demographic and serve a customised experience.

ikea_gateway

Gateway pages allow user to select country of origin for a more customised user experiance

 

Progressive Enhancement

UX is always evolving with emerging technologies. Introduction of different screen sizes, motion sensors, VR headsets and faster processing allows for deeper engagement between the application and user. Although we don’t cover progressive UX transformations in detail, the following comparisons demonstrate how far some of the most visited websites have come:

facebook-history google-history yahoo-history youtube-history

 

What happens if you ignore UX?

A business risks heavy losses if it is not listening to its customers. Throughout history, we have seen both new and established products fail because product designers did not get UX right. One very well known example is Newton. The Newton was a series of personal digital assistants developed and marketed by Apple Inc. in 1993.

The Newton was a series of personal digital assistants developed and marketed by Apple Inc. in 1993

The Newton by Apple, Inc.

Newton, by all means, was an innovative product however its prime feature was handwriting recognition which wasn’t fully fleshed out at the time of its release. However, Steve Jobs saw potential in The Newton and later used what it had learnt from its customers to develop a new and very successful franchise of products (iPod touch, iPhone and iPad). One of the key aspects behind the success of these products was enhancing UX by replacing a stylus with touch enabled display.

New product releases always involve risks when it comes to their commercial potential. However, some already well received products may evolve into something that does not resonate with its users anymore. MySpace is one such example.

Myspace at launch in 2003

Myspace at launch in 2003. Myspace (originally MySpace) is a social networking website offering an interactive, user-submitted network of friends, personal profiles, blogs, groups, photos, music, and videos.

Myspace was a top social network until it made some very bad design decisions. Speaking to Businessweek in an interview, the former founder of Myspace blamed overenthusiam and underexecuation of Myspace’s product design.

We tried to create every feature in the world and said, ‘O.K., we can do it, why should we let a third party do it?’ ” said DeWolfe. “We should have picked five to ten key features that we totally focused on and let other people innovate on everything else.
– Chris DeWolfe, Former CEO of Myspace

Myspace was acquired by News Corporation in July 2005 for $580 million. In 2006, disappointed Myspace users migrated to Facebook for a better social network alternative. In June 2009, Myspace employed approximately 1,600 employees. In June 2011, Specific Media Group and Justin Timberlake jointly purchased the company for approximately $35 million. Under new ownership, the company had undergone several rounds of layoffs and by June 2011, Myspace had reduced its staff to around 200. Myspace made several attempts to reinvent itself however it could not be revived to its original glory. Perhaps, one reason for users not returning to Myspace is that bad experiences are (unfortunately) stickier. Thus, UX is something that is not to be taken lightly.

“It really does matter whether [an event is] positive or negative in that most of the time, if not all of the time, negative events tend to be remembered in a more accurate fashion than positive events,”
– Kensinger, Researcher

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