User experience: What it is and how to get some

The key to designing websites that work for their actual users is to get an understanding of who those users are and what they will want to use the site for.

In the first article in this series we introduced the idea of User-Centred Design (UCD) -- a design process that concentrates on designing websites for the people who will use them; rather than to embody the latest trends in web technology, or to simply please the senior management in the company.

Central to UCD is "user experience": an understanding of how the site will appear to, and be used by, real people. A picture of the user experience is built on understanding the key characteristics of the intended audience for a site, and the tasks they will need to carry out while visiting it.

For instance, sites that are intended to be used primarily by health professionals can afford to use quite a bit of medical terminology without undue explanation. On the other hand, a site where users will need to be able to convert sums of money into a foreign currency might have a link to an online foreign exchange tool on its main navigation, where it is accessible with just one click.

Once they know exactly who will use a site and what they will want to do, web design professionals can "engineer" a site so that all the navigation, headings, content and graphical material are optimally designed to help those users carry out their tasks.

When a site user can visit a site for the first time and find all the information they need without confusion, and then carry out all the tasks they need to do without failing: that's when we can say that the site has a "great user experience".

Creating a great user experience requires more than the traditional skills valued in the era we now call "Web 1.0". Back in the day, skills in HTML programming and the ability to manipulate digital images and typography were seen as critically important. Now we can argue that all of the following are equally essential.

A team with a great range of talent: Visual design, interaction design, information architecture, writing and web engineering are just few of the different skill sets required to create a great online experience.

A clear focus on what is important specifically for this site: Trying to do everything for everyone is a sure-fire recipe for failure. The tighter the focus, the easier it is to understand and deliver a great user experience -- so be crystal clear about identifying your markets, users and objectives.

A clear and detailed picture of what your typical users will be like: Identify your users, then try to get inside their heads and figure out what drives them. Often it helps to develop descriptions of imaginary typical users -- called "personas". Understand your users, so that you can be their advocate.

A well-planned process: Do your research. Draft a design. Test it with some real users and get their feedback. Then do it all over again as early and as often as possible.

Alignment between the goals of the site's owners and the users: Make sure your organisations goals and web strategy are aligned with your customers' needs and expectations. To do this, you need to have undertaken research into what your customers actually want. It's not good enough to just give them what you think they want. Often web designers will create imaginary scenarios in which they picture user personas interacting with the site.

Gone are the days when designing a website was left to one person who was "good with computers". Now we know that a broad range of talents are needed, and they won't all belong to one person. Great web sites are made by great teams.

Just like the building profession features civil engineers, architects, interior designers, builders, plumbers, engineers and a multitude of other trades, web interface design requires a range of different training. These include professionals skilled in:

Information Architecture: The art and science of organising and labelling web content to support usability and findability. This includes "content design" or online writing -- a specialised skillset in itself.

Visual Design: Visual Design is concerned with arranging all the elements of visual expression and style to create an experience. It spans fields such as graphic design, typography, layout, colour theory, iconography and photography.

Interaction Design: The discipline of designing interactive experiences. These require time as an organising principle, with interactive design being concerned with managing a user's experience while interacting with a web interface in real time.

Web Development: This is the actual "code crunching" involved in creating the functionality behind a site -- often including interface with online databases, security and access management, and facilitating the easy revision of site content by non-professionals.

As well as using personas and scenarios, as mentioned earlier, user experience designers also use the following techniques such as the following in order to produce successful UCD outcomes.

Sketch out workflows: Use the written scenarios to create potential workflows -- or sequences of tasks -- and explain what the users will get in reward for their efforts.

Create wireframes: These are very simple "paper" prototypes designed just to show workflow through sketches of successive screens. The "rougher" the appearance the more feedback you'll receive, as users oftentimes don't want to criticise something that already looks too finished.

Test: Designers may initially use colleagues to test concepts. Just so long as they are not involved in the project development process. Then they test with actual target users. You don't need a statistically valid sample -- the most critical issues will rapidly be identified within the first half-dozen users.

A/B Testing: Successive testing may be carried out with different designs. There's more than one way to achieve this -- so testing different approaches can help us to see which works best. Often the best outcome may be a combination of parts from more than one concept.

Increasingly web design companies incorporate team members who possess all of these skills, or they "outsource" parts of the job to consultants. One advantage for clients in this "outsourcing", is that they might employ company A to do the web design and company B to evaluate the user experience. This works as a system of "checks and balances" rather like an accounting audit. Sometimes the actual design team are too close to their design to be able to impartially evaluate it from the users' point of view. In that case company B can provide "fresh eyes" to see where potential pitfalls may appear.

This is where considerations of "well planned design process" come into play. While web development is fairly new, the architectural process is ancient -- and well-established as a model. In a typical building project, before the first block is laid the following happens:

o The architect identifies the target users, learning more about their needs, desires and budget.

o He sketches some sample designs, maybe making a model or two.

o He shows them to the users and they give feedback.

o The architect revises the designs adding further detail with each revision.

Steps three and four are repeated as often as necessary. The key consideration is that once construction begins, making significant changes becomes very expensive -- both in direct material costs and in time delays. So it is critical to identify the right design as early in the process as possible, while still reviewing the design against built progress as the design unfolds.

And while it always seems tempting to shorten the design process, inevitably skipping this cycle of research, design and test, will inevitably extend the actual construction process and degrades the ultimate "user experience" -- whether the project is a cathedral or an airline booking website.

The key to successful web design is in understanding "user experience" -- and the way to do that is through careful planning, and the employment of a broad range of professional skills to realise those plans.

The third and fourth articles in this series will introduce some of the techniques used in implementing user-centred web design. We'll present some case studies showing the actual range of usability concerns in some real sites, the techniques used to identify them, and the often simple solutions required to fix them. The next article will focus on expert evaluations.

-- Russell lectures at Christchurch Polytechnic, where he is the programme leader in the Graduate Diploma of Information Design. He consults with Wired Internet Group. Email him at russellb@cpit.ac.nz or read his blog at wired.co.nz/blog/default.asp

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