April 23rd 2017

WTF is UX?!

by Rich Milner

So everyone’s talking about it and suddenly everyone’s offering it. And for a moment, we figured there was little point in us talking about it; but then we had three client meetings in quick succession - and every time we said “UX”, our clients scratched their heads and promptly asked “WTF is UX?” 

So what is it? Aside from being a buzzword banded around by the marketing community over the last few years, it’s also a rather important concept which very much separates the wheat from the chaff in web design. After all, you can buy a Wordpress theme for $50, right?

‘User experience design’ is the study of how people use devices, websites & applications. More specifically; in our current environment, it’s designing for people who interact with content using a screened device. Whether that’s an operating system, a website, an application, a cash machine or even a quiz machine in the pub (you know, the ones - where every Tom, Dick & Harry puts their salt and vinegar crisp fingers all over the screen). No matter what it is, they all need designing with the best user experience in mind—or in our language—for a HUMAN. 

It’s designing an application that does what users need it to do - without difficulty or frustration. It’s creating something simple and functional, that gets the user to the end goal in the simplest, fluff-free way possible. It’s putting human interaction at the centre of the design process rather than making something that just looks pretty. 

In the context of our industry, UX is commonly referred to when undertaking a new website or app design, but often thought of as just wire-framing. Frankly, this is bollocks. Occasionally agencies will slot this phase into a project scope, just to get a bit of extra budget out of the project. Watch out for that one! Not all website designs require a lengthy UX phase. 

The UX design phase comprises of multiple elements. It’s not just wire-framing. It can cover all or a section of the following elements:

User research

Understanding user behaviour, needs and motivations through a variety of different research methods.

Content audit

Is there an existing website or application? If so, review the content and decide what is working well and consider using it in the new platform. What isn’t working - bin it.

Usability testing

Once you’ve developed a product, how well can a user complete tasks, learn how to use, and achieve their goals?

Key performance indicators (KPIs)

What are the goals and objectives of the application and what is seen as success?

Information architecture

How information is organised, structured, positioned and ordered throughout the product or application.

User interface design (UI design)

The design and function of key actions throughout the interface.

Visual design

The fun stuff - ensuring the product is designed in an aesthetic and appealing way. 

Content requirements

The planning, creation and governance of useful and usable content.

Accessibility

How do users with disabilities use your platform? Have you catered for these needs?

Web analytics

Gathering user statistics, reporting and analysing the results. 

All the above are super-important aspects of UX design; and it’s not a definitive list. On complicated projects, all will be required. But if the budget doesn’t allow and the complexities aren’t there, the most important areas can be used to produce a well thought out and user-friendly product or application. 

Humans will always find the easy route for doing something. They want the quickest way, with the easiest option, which requires the least amount of thought, giving the best results. Not much to ask eh? Understanding that the user will always try to take shortcuts means we need to make the journey through an application, as easy as possible; or we’ll create a frustrated user. And when users get frustrated they generally get quite vocal about it, resulting in a bad trust pilot review and/or no interaction - end of.

humanattention Fist of Fury

Planning for what the user wants to do rather than what you would like them to do is a tricky concept, but that’s what the UX designer is here for. They’re not painting the Sistine Chapel! Of course we want the application we’re designing to look good, but first and foremost we need it to function and give the end user what they’re expecting. Hitting the sweet-spot between what we want users to do and what users want to do is good UX design.

All projects will have business goals, but if we designed an application with just these in mind, we’d only wind up with unhappy users. It’s the UX designer's job to create harmony between business goals and the user's needs. By addressing just business goals, we may make users feel pushed, unsafe or confused by an application. If we base the design process purely around the user, we’d most likely go over budget, and end up with something that’s not meeting the project KPIs. For this reason, scoping workshops are CRUCIAL to gather all these requirements, then refine them so the product can be designed to function for the most important requirements from both of these groups.  

So... I've talked about UX design of a website, device or application, but it doesn’t start or indeed finish there. UX design is based around the whole experience of a product or service; consider the following example: 

Uber spent a lot of time ensuring their app is intuitive, informative and overall easy to use, but if they didn’t consider the UX of the whole process, the overall user experience could be a lot different. If drivers were continually late or not going to the right address, the experience of the service would be poor. If they didn’t have standards for the cars the drivers were able to use, customers would be getting into a smelly, dirty car, which would change their overall user experience. So just having an incredibly usable app doesn’t fix/solve all the user experience needs of a company - we need to consider the whole picture!

So we need to consider the users' whole interaction with a product or a service from beginning to end to ensure their needs are met in an easy and efficient way throughout the experience and ensure that it is kept consistent with brand and values….

NOW we’re getting somewhere.  

No matter how much work is done up front, there will always be a need to conduct on-going testing of how users are interacting with the platform you’ve created. As Bill Gates once said "Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning”, so we produce, get feedback and then amend. This is something that companies like Amazon do on a daily basis to make sure you can access their products as easily as possible. I’m often shocked at how quickly I can purchase something through their website. 

Some organisations choose to go down the route of launching a new platform based on assumptions then test how users are interacting with it. There is then a wealth real-life data to inform them of the changes which need to be made, then the platform can be refined to meet user requirements. This can save money upfront in the project lifecycle, but could be quite costly later down the line if you find you’ve got it really wrong.  

Hopefully by now, I’m beginning to paint a picture of what UX design is and how it can be used in the industry we’re operating in.  Begs the question: how was your experience?! ;) 

  1. UX ven diagram Fist of Fury
  2. omni-channel device - Fist of Fury
  3. ux flow Fist of Fury