Great designers and developers don’t just make things pretty and write code, they provide strategically crafted solutions that organize content, determine context, reach users at an emotive level, and get visitors to what they want quickly. What Alan Cooper, author of About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design and The Inmates are Running the Asylum, says is form, content, and behavior or what a digital product is and what it does. This body of work encompasses interaction design, which includes user experience design (UX) and information architecture (IA, what Cooper calls content findability or taxonomy). This is tough stuff–the deep end of the pool.
For the sake of discussion, we may use interaction design and user experience (UX) design interchangeably. UX is a broad term to explain behavior or activities within a system (I know, this is dry). Now let’s overlay the heartbeat, the person. Interaction design is the study of a person’s experience with a system, including the interface, graphics, industrial design, physical interaction, and the manual. It also refers to the application of user-centered design practices to generate cohesive, predictive, and desirable designs based on holistic consideration of users’ experience. UX is rapidly changing. Tablets and smartphones use swiping and other touch-centric navigation. Swipe it, gesture it, tap it, and lastly, click it. Mobile-first tools are center stage in 2013. Mainstream gesture-based computing is coming shortly. And Google Glass might well change the world of computing forever.
Before we begin building, we need to understand context and context versus device type. User content is location-based, time-based, and device-based. Based on this quick definition, you can see that the device is part of the bigger context. We’ll get into a few scenarios that clients raise about we can’t do x because of mobile or we need to do y because of something else.
To build the best UX, the design team (defined broadly) needs to understand the visitor. What’s important? What’s the immediate goal? What sort of device or computer is being used? The team needs to catalog all of the information and develop a simple information architecture (IA) that gets the visitor to the information that they desire as quickly as possible (and while keeping ever-changing SEO best practices in the fore). The device doesn’t matter as much as the user context. Context trumps all else! That’s because the action taken by the user (eg behavior) will be largely the same independent of the device (a smartphone, tablet, netbook or desktop) because of the context.
We often hear from clients: “that’s not a feature we should include because she’s on a mobile.” Or “this is mobile, all she needs is a location and phone number.” In both cases, mobile context is used to justify limiting features or content available. In practice, the user will do just about anything on a mobile device: write long emails, read 5,000 word articles, and even check-out of storefronts that barely work on mobile devices. That’s because mobile is their only or most readably available option based on the combination of location, time, and device. Priorities, attention, and other limitations vary wildly from user to user. Context is more important than the specific limitations of the devices. That said, the experience also must fit the purpose of the device. Reducing the effort that it takes to solve a problem builds loyalty. Demonstrating an understanding of the customer and respecting the manner they want to interact with a website breeds loyalty.
In interaction design we are heavily focused on satisfying the needs and desires of the people who use a website or native app. Cooper, back in the early 90s, championed a design methodology that put the users’ needs first. He wrote several books on designing successful technology products. We use Cooper’s persona process. We’re one of the only a handful of marketing groups in Maine to use primary research tools like Experian Hitwise Mosaic psychographic and lifestyle attributes (similar to Claritas PRIZM) to nail down user characteristics. We build personas based on research findings. We model user cohorts based on the data under a bell-shaped curve: the center and the outliers too.
If we’ve done UX well, we are able to defend our design decisions to anyone. Cennydd Bowles developed the concept of the UX Validation Stack. The stack articulates the relative power, with user evidence (real time user data of experience) on top. This tier shows your most powerful ally: data gleaned directly from users or primary research such as usability testing or data. People who work in UX field use UX evidence to support design decisions. Does the design perform? Do analytics show that users are navigating the site as expected? Running usability tests before the design goes to production is always ideal. That said, not all client budgets provide this luxury. If you don’t have direct user evidence, design decisions should be based on research, design principles, or hypothetical theories. If the UX isn’t supported by user evidence, research, or theories based in sound UX science, toss it. Go back to the drawing board and “prove it,” as Bowles says.
High quality content, regardless of whether the website or app aims to inform, entertain, or sell, will increase the site’s likelihood of converting digital visitors. Beyond providing quality content, a site also needs to organize that content in a way that is accessible to visitors. At the beginning of the article, we spoke of information architecture (IA). Let’s get into IA a bit more.
IA is the science of organizing and characterizing data for the purpose of supporting online visitors using a website or other platform. An easy example is categorizing books, by genre: classics, mysteries, young adult, sci-fi, etc. to help the user find for what s/he is looking. Sites like Amazon, LLBean, and Zappos have tens of thousands of skus. If you didn’t know what you want, exactly, you could search on shirts or womens shirts or womens short-sleeve shirts or womens short-sleeve shirts with collars, and it keeps going. And what users want to get in return is womens shirt, not mens, boys or girls. I know you can relate, site search on many sites stink, truly stinks!
The user experience of web development, in general, has progressively improved over the years, but there are still oodles of sites on the web that leave you asking “what were they thinking.” And still yet, there are oodles of web developers that don’t know or don’t care about relationship of client goals, their customers’ UX, and lead generation/conversion. From a creative design perspective, it is easy to get wrapped up in internal quarrels over colors, font treatment, methods, tools, etc. and forget about the user and from where (location), when (time) and on what device (mobile or otherwise) s/he is. Or there are the clients who don’t care and just want a site, any ol’ site will do. In this scenario, what the user sees and feels is a void of emotion from the brand. And marketing products and services is about eliciting an emotive response, especially if the product is an impulse buy or the service is to entertain and help pass time like, you know, when you’re waiting in line at the department of motor vehicles.
Unless your project has a plan it is oftentimes prone to mediocrity or failure. Here is some tangible advice on how to avert the most common UX blunders:
Pay attention to the micro
Large design decisions—things like the URL structure, IA, the grid layout of your pages—are, super important. But it’s the smaller interactions that most often botch the entire experience. The contact, donate and checkout process is often shortchanged. When projects are on tight budgets it is easy to overlook the little stuff. Some organizations have UX people do the high level UX and leave the low level interactions for less experienced developers to execute, mind you, without much supervision. This is a costly mistake. Technology needs to mimic the same rules as human to human interaction. How do you decide whether someone is caring or if he or she is acting in your interests? You can’t judge a book by its cover! It’s not the attire that someone wears or their skin color—it’s the tiny little things that they do for you. They come though consistently in the time of need. The same is true for a website or app. We decide whether a site is useful and worthy of respect when trying to complete micro-interactions.
Put less effort into designing the homepage (and not the other pages)
It is easy to put too much time and energy on the homepage vs other pages of your site. What percentage of users enter a site though the homepage? You might be surprised to learn that, for many sites, the percentage is less than 20%. Smart marketers direct advertising and social media campaigns to highly tuned landing pages or sub-pages. Of course you want a well-designed homepage, but don’t sacrifice the UX of other inside pages on overly exhaustive homepage refinements.
Rely on different types of media
What percentage of the content is textual verus imagery and audio/visual? Here at Dirigo we like sharing copy or words because we feel the need to inform our customers and prospects. Copy has tremendous SEO value but so do images, video, social sharing, press releases, inbound links, blogs, reviews and ratings. There’s nothing wrong with using copy heavily on your website, except that a big chunk of the user base aren’t likely to read it... it needs to be displayed along with content so users can decide what they want to view.
Writing for the web is different than writing for other types of media. The people who visit your site do not read your web pages the way they read newspapers, books, magazines, or collateral material. In general, web users are in a hurry and impatient. They want information fast and they don’t want to have to work to find it. By keeping web copy concise and objective, you’ll make the maximum possible impact on your readers. Concise is not the same as short. Users are seldom interested in short by itself. For example, we know that longer-form copy converts better than short copy. Users want relevance. Think like an inverted pyramid. The meat needs to be low hanging (aka at the pinnacle of the pyramid). Use bullets or lists because they’re easy to scan. If a good writer can convey a thought in 900 words, a great writer can do it in 450. Respect the readers’ time because nobody these days has time. Short paragraphs read easier. Good headlines and titles help readers decide whether to invest in reading on. The average smartphone has a screen size of about 4 inches. Content must be short (both word length and sentence and paragraph length). The average Dirigo prospect is not your normal web browser; we get away with breaking the rules.
If you have the budget and time to produce Internet video, do it. The end game is to regularly publish good quality online video. Most organizations see regular online video publishing as too big a challenge, from a cost and logistics perspective. Web video can be done for a few hundred dollars per video, but, it takes time and energy–about the same as writing a 1,000-2,000 word article. Audio by itself has a considerably lower price point than video and is much easier to produce.
Know your audience. Generation X, Silent, Baby Boomers, Millennials: they have different expectations while online. The technology that is dominant when you are between the ages of 8-10 years locks people into that way that they think about technology. Guess that makes me the king of cable technology!!
As an example, Boomers are not big fans of anonymity on the web, especially anonymous blog comments. They believe that if you knew who it was, the Internet would be a safer place. Boomers support the rule of law on the Internet. The date of birth is not so important: mindset and transformative experiences matter more.
Millenials communicate differently, sending an average of 80 electronic messages daily (emails, tweets, blog posts, and social media posts). Their number one source of news is the web. Toyota’s Scion, with plenty of scope for customization and self-expression, was designed specifically for this generation. Millennials like to tell stores and adore self-expression. They live in a social economy where design must accommodate sharing. Designing for a millennial world doesn't mean everything has to be fast and frenetic. Downtime and human relationships are coveted. Social responsibility and mindful consumption are important to this demographic cohort. Millennials, unlike Boomers, trust anonymous consumers. They won’t touch or click the buy button without input from others. Social proof, reviews, and ratings are a must for this group.
The newer generations don’t think about technology, it’s all they know 24/7/365. Generation Zers won’t even think of a desktop or laptop as their primary technology. They’ll use smartphones, Glass, and maybe eye implants someday!
Since each of us belongs to a single generation, it is difficult to really understand how another generation thinks and views the world. This is why personas and testing is so important, to walk in the shoes of real users, customers.
Pay attention to multi-screen behavior and the expanded palette
Mobile and tablet computing have redefined the palette and the browsing experience. Users start on a smartphone, may also be using a tablet, switch to a desktop or vice-versa. They have multiple screens wherever they are working. They are waiting in line, walking or talking to someone else while surfing the web.
Designers still tend to imagine a single person sitting in front of a large monitor in a room. This is most often 100% fiction. The device we’re using is driven by context: what we’re doing, where we are, and what we want to accomplish. There are two modes of multi-screening: sequential (jumping between devices) and simultaneous (using multiple devices at the same time). Television no longer commands our full attention, though it is the most common device used simultaneously with other screens. Two-thirds of consumers begin the shopping experience on one device, like a smartphone, and then continue to another (eg a desktop, laptop, or tablet). Envision your UX in this new world.
Dirigo’s distinguished team of hipsters and geeks (and some old folks too) immerse themselves in strategy, design, and technology to create highly integrated, easy-to-use, flexible solutions that provide competitive advantage. We don’t describe our web folks as web designers. That’s because “web designer” implies a strong command of Photoshop, HTML, and CSS. Eighty-five percent of web development or web design shops stop at graphical design and markup. They're mostly about a pretty picture. Dirigo is different because we obsess about results. Sure, we’ve got those basic skills in spades! But, these activities alone generally make up less than 25% of a web project. Creating surveys, conducting interviews, sketching, user testing, analysis, market research, persona scenario exercises, refining concepts, thinking strategically, and yes – focusing on user experience, account for at least 50% of a web project. These are all activities performed by UX designers that inform a design but are decidedly non-designy.
UX and IA are huge subjects and disciplines in their own right. At Dirigo we believe that website design and application development is more science than art. What we typically do here at Dirigo requires far more than skills than Photoshop, Dreamweaver, HTML and CSS. We follow a time-tested process that incorporates best practices, an understanding of human psychology and behavior, strong communication and inquiry skills, and experience in applying techniques and past experiences in a way that will deliver the best result for your client.
Looking for ways to improve your UX? When it comes to interactive design and application development, few advertising agencies are better prepared to help you grow, or have more UX experience than Dirigo. We're a band of experienced marketers. We'll help you to develop a new UX or to improve your existing UX. You name it, we've done it. And if we've not, we'll tell you so and refer you to an expert who can help. Contact us today to discuss your situation. If your organization seeks higher revenues, call us at 207-358-2990. We're here to help you connect with your customers and to grow your organization.