What is User Experience?

Introduction

Since the inception of the web in the early nineties, the Internet has become a mainstay of modern life. We work, play and communicate online. Every business has a website; every customer has an email address. It’s everywhere we go and touches everything we do. Yet for something so relevant to daily life, we approach it in a very curious way.

The offline principles of customer experience, ease of use and quality of service have been set aside. The fast pace of the Internet has deceived us into thinking that these things are no longer important. Instead we find cosmetic choices and decisions based on little more than whim. In the midst of all the technology, it’s easy to forget that people are the heart of the Internet. If people can’t use a website properly, or can’t complete their goals successfully, the technology itself is meaningless.

Technology provides the foundation for the web, but like the foundations of a bridge, it must be built in the right way to support the people who use it. So what should an organisation consider when building an online presence? The short answer is User Experience. In other words, the experience a person has when visiting the website. User experience is a combination of factors, all of which contribute to peoples brand perception. People’s experiences are usually built from a relatively short list of requirements:

  • Can they use the site easily?
  • Can they access information without difficulty?
  • Can they accomplish their goals?
  • Did they enjoy using the website?
  • Would they recommend the site to friends or family?

Similarly, several factors contribute to building a good user experience:

  • Accessibility;
  • Usability;
  • Creativity.

Accessibility

Accessibility is the process of ensuring that as many people as possible can access online content. Web accessibility is certainly critical for people with disabilities, such as blindness or deafness, but it’s easy to assume that’s where it stops. In fact, most people will at some point in their lives experience something that will make it difficult for them to use a computer. This could be a broken arm, strong prescription glasses, colour blindness or a bad ear infection. Figures from the Department of Work and Pensions from 2006 indicate there are over 10 million people with a recognised disability in the UK. That’s one in seven of the population. Despite the fact that the figures don’t include people with temporary conditions that affect their abilities, the estimated annual spending power of those 10 million is over £80 billion. The business case is clear. The more people that can use a website, the greater opportunity for communication and greater the potential revenue. There is a large untapped market out there, many of whom find the web a difficult and frustrating place. As the population ages and the generations grow more comfortable with technology, this market is only going to increase. Looking at it another way, where is the commercial sense in turning away over 14% of the population from a website? UK organisations have an obligation under the Disability Discrimination Act to ensure their services, including websites, are accessible to people with disabilities. The act doesn’t define a specific target level of web accessibility however, making it difficult for companies to know what needs to be done. Help is at hand however. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are a globally recognised framework for web accessibility. Whether it’s a new website being built or an existing website being evaluated for accessibility, these guidelines fit the bill. Developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), version 1.0 of the guidelines were published in 1999. The W3C have been working on version 2.0 for several years now, but current estimates suggest they’ll be published in the first half of 2009. Already being used as the basis for web accessibility, version 2.0 covers a wider range of technologies than the original guidelines. Flash, PDFs and JavaScript are all given more focus in the newer version. Both versions of the guidelines use a three tier approach to measuring web accessibility:

  • Single-A – The basic level;
  • Double-A – The intermediate level;
  • Triple-A – The highest level.

In the UK, the Government has defined Double-A accessibility as the minimum target for government and local authority websites. The European Parliament has also chosen Double-A as the recommended accessibility level for websites across the European public sector. Although the Disability Discrimination Act provides no specific guidance, it is logical to assume that similar accessibility levels could well be applied within the private sector. Accessibility contributes to user experience by enabling people to successfully access information on a website. It can dramatically reduce frustration and confusion, making the browsing experience easier and more productive.

Usability

Usability is the process of ensuring people can use a website easily and successfully. Ease of use is an essential factor in good user experience, because it contributes to people’s ability to leave a website feeling happy and satisfied. The complex science of Human-Computer Interaction lies behind usability, but the premise is simple. Can someone carry out a task easily, efficiently and successfully? Looking at it that way, it’s easy to understand why those factors are so relevant to user experience. Clear sign posting is one example of good usability contributing to user experience. In other words, making it easy for people to know where they are within the website, where they’ve come from and where they’d like to go next. Breadcrumb trails, named because of the fairytale of Hansel and Gretel, show the path that somebody’s followed to reach their current position. It’s one simple technique that can help someone understand their location within the site. Structuring the website in a sensible and helpful way will contribute significantly to user experience. Knowing how to breakdown the information on a website into different sections can be difficult. There is often a tendency to use a structure more suited to people familiar with the organisation, than those coming to a website for the first time. There are techniques that can be used to begin the process of structuring information on a website. For example, card sorting is a simple exercise that allows people to divide the content of a website into different groups. Looking for patterns amongst the information groups helps begin the process of shaping the structure of the website according to people’s needs. Another useful approach is to provide people with different ways of completing their goals. Good site structure is key, as it forms the main navigation for the website. Including a sitemap of the whole website can augment the main navigation, by providing a one stop shop for the website. For larger websites, particularly where information is plentiful, a search facility is a must. Search functionality can be further enhanced by providing filters that enable people to narrow down their initial search results. Usability and accessibility are close companions. If a website isn’t accessible, it can’t truly be usable. Together, good accessibility and usability enable people to access the information they need and do so easily, quickly and successfully.

Creativity

Creativity is the process of capturing people’s imagination, promoting trust in the brand and communicating effectively. It is a common misconception that strong accessibility constrains creativity. In the hands of capable designers and developers, the two can be brought together for maximum effect. Colour plays an important role in promoting brand perception.

People react instinctively to certain colours, whilst some are associated with different ideas or beliefs. Colours are also an important aspect of branding itself, with recognised colours automatically reminding people of a particular company or product. The science of colour psychology suggests that colour can be used to build trust, provide reassurance and portray friendliness. In terms of user experience, promoting these feelings is extremely important. People who feel relaxed and comfortable whilst browsing a website are more likely to accomplish their goals and leave feeling happy and satisfied. Although colour should not be relied upon to convey information, for the benefit of people with different visual conditions, it can be used to enhance people’s experiences. For example, causing a link to become highlighted when it is given focus with a mouse or keyboard can help people quickly confirm their position on the page. This simple technique uses colour to make navigation much quicker and easier.

Consistency of design is also important when building a good user experience. Ensuring that objects are in the same place on every page across the site helps people build a mental map of the website. For example, consistently placing the navigation on the left of the page, or the logo on the top right. Once people have begun to familiarise themselves with a website, navigation becomes considerably easier. Design in the wider sense of the whole website adds to the user experience. It is often the visual design that catches people’s eye, draws them into the website further and starts the process of building interest in the brand. A visually engaging design is a powerful means of conveying key information. Whether the website is low key or a full scale interactivity hot spot, the design will be critical in presenting the right level of style and purpose. Creativity, in combination with accessibility and usability, is a powerful tool in building user experience. First impressions count and although accessibility and usability are necessary to sustain a good impression, it is often the creative aspect of a website that begins the process.

User Experience

The relationship between positive user experience and commercial gain has long been understood by agencies like Nomensa. Despite the complexities of the different strands of accessibility, usability and creativity, the outcome is remarkably simple. If people can come to a website, successfully achieve their goals, enjoy the experience and leave feeling satisfied and happy, then they’ve experienced something positive. With human nature being what it is, people will then welcome the idea of returning to the website, staying longer on their next visit, or recommending it to their friends. The conversion into commercial benefit isn’t difficult to spot. Increased visitor numbers, improved profitability, greater customer loyalty, positive publicity. There isn’t one logical reason why user experience shouldn’t be at the heart of every web development project.

Can we help?

Here at Nomensa we deliver UX strategies to a wide range of clients, strategies that see them compete on experience and navigate away from the challenges of comoditisation.

If you would like to find out more about how we could help your organisation then give us a call on +44 (0) 117 929 7333 or submit this short form