Short article written and edited by Chris Rubin, 2011.
User Experience 101
Are you experienced? Aside from an outdated Jimi Hendrix reference, this question refers to your experience as a user of the internet. This notion refers to a highly prevalent term in the web design field: “User Experience” (UX). If you’ve visited a website – ever – then you officially qualify as a "user". The word "experience" is self-explanatory, so now the real question becomes, “What is User Experience, and why should I care?”
All industry jargon aside, User Experience is really about customer service... Take a moment to visualize your website, or one that you frequently visit. Now think of that site in terms of an actual, physical storefront location. Let’s use a restaurant as our example. The home page is equivalent to the front entrance – the first impression – and this is where your dining experience begins. What mood or energy do the lighting and décor evoke? How does this compare with your preconceived notions about the establishment? Is the atmosphere in line with any branding or advertising you may have previously encountered? Is it easy to find a table that suits you? Is the menu clear and easy to understand? Have you been presented with any specials, or special offers? These same concerns, among others, are reflected in the approach toward website usability.
So if every visitor to your site is a potential customer or client, then it is critical they are treated as such. Similar to a physical retail location, customers in the online environment should be able to find exactly what they’re looking for, as quickly as possible. Virtually everything else is secondary to this one fundamental objective. Now, anyone with marketing experience might be choking on their coffee at that last comment, but it really is true, and it’s been proven in study after study by the best minds in the business. That said, there are certainly other marketing-related concerns that must be addressed in any website strategy.
I’m sure we can agree that branding and design are two of the most important and visible aspects of your website. I bet we can also agree that when it comes to these visual components, everyone has an opinion, and everyone wants to be heard. Design by its very nature is a subjective field, and if you’ve ever been responsible for getting a proposed design concept approved by committee, then you know how painful that process can often be. Just because you may find a design appealing, does not necessarily mean it’s going to be functional and appropriate for your target audience. A concept that bombs in the boardroom could still bear fruit, if the users approve... We need confirmation – How can we really know if a design is going to work or not? This is where the UX team swoops in to save the day.
Although the process of testing, revising, and re-testing a design concept is a rigorous one, it provides quantitative and qualitative data that informs practical decisions about the final result. Beginning with a deep dive into the nature of your business, and thorough research into the multi-faceted makeup of your audience, the User Experience team develops a set of targeted user profiles or “personas.” These personas provide a foundation for the testing and analysis of various website components. Once the test subjects are sought after and recruited based on these persona profiles, we end up with a group of real, live people who fit the exact description of the users of your new site – your customers and prospects. A battery of testing methods is then employed to deeply evaluate and, most importantly, validate the critical components of the proposed site structure and design. Based on the data collected, rounds of revisions are made, then re-tested with another set of persona-based recruits.
Once the design, layout, functionality, and navigation have been validated by a representative target audience, then we can confidently proceed toward launch. By carefully researching, selecting, observing and listening to actual users, we have provided firm ground to support the recommendations being made. In turn, you gain fiscal and practical efficiencies by neutralizing bias and minimizing required debate, thereby reducing the time and resources involved. Additionally, you have now built trust within your executive team by gaining consensus around validated findings, and affirming the budget will be well-spent.
Of course UX is just one component within a cohesive and holistic website strategy, yet it has pervasive applications throughout. The true bottom line with User Experience is that your site’s strategy and design are not about you, your executive team, or even your shareholders – It’s all about the user. Just as the customer is always right, the user always comes first. “But first,” as Jimi once said, “are you experienced?”