Design is often mistaken for how products and websites look and feel, but that’s a small part of the picture.
The reality is that design isn’t merely aesthetic, it’s functional too. That’s why terms like ‘experience design’ have entered our lexicon: to distinguish between making things pretty and making things delightful. The Interaction Design Foundation formally defines experience design as the process design teams use to create products that provide meaningful and relevant experiences for users.
To that end, good experience design is invisible. In other words, when an experience functions as intended, it’s so intuitive we might even forget someone made it to begin with. It’s just that natural.
It’s only when things don't function as intended that people take notice, which leads to frustrated customers, higher churn rates and failed opportunities for your clients.
This makes experience design tricky to get right: it’s difficult to study what works because it often flies under the radar, and what doesn’t work might be so hyper-contextual that it doesn’t translate over to new projects. Still, there are some best practices you can implement to improve the experience design outputs in your agency.
“When we look back at the first websites, we can only see their flaws in hindsight,” says Yaeli Hasson, Head of Partners UX at Wix “There’s no information architecture, and it’s all pretty barebones visually because the technology wasn’t there yet. Back then, we had no frame of reference for what a website could be, so the functionality had to be immediately obvious in the sense that you knew what was clickable, in order for the overall experience to work as intended.”
Of course, a lot has changed in the UX design world, but the more things change, the more they stay the same. That is, in a fast-moving digital landscape, you need to cultivate a process built on universal design principles. Hasson details four permanent truths agency owners should internalize to build more impactful websites, apps and digital experiences for their clients.
1. Always start with research
Surely designing for yourself is ideal. When you deeply resonate with the problem customers face, you have greater clarity into why those obstacles exist and how to tackle them. But that same expertise can turn a perceived strength into a bias. That’s why Hasson stresses the golden rule of UX: you are not the user.
“You need to stay in an ‘always-learning’ mentality to remain user-centric,” says Hasson. Good UX always starts with research, she says, to gain a deeper understanding of users’ wants, needs and values. “We should relate our efforts to the intentions of people interacting with the site or product and help them achieve their goals in a quick, efficient and delightful manner.”
Designing digital experiences for clients means learning not only about their businesses, but their customers. Craft user personas that steer decision-making based on direct conversations, surveys, social media and Google Analytics. These should include more than high-level descriptions of your audience’s age or profession, such as their personality, behavior, goals, motivations and frustrations.
Lastly, Hasson recommends running a competitive research analysis, taking stock of both aesthetic and functional design decisions. “Always conduct both direct and indirect competitor research,” she says. “If you’re building a flower shop site for instance, take note of other flower websites, as well as general eCommerce sites that share some resemblance. You’ll be surprised at some of the insights you’ll garner with this approach.” Things to look for:
Cross-pollinating ideas (pun intended) between two or more industries
Web trends you might have missed
Brand and messaging decisions
2. Aim for crystal clarity
Less is more when it comes to experience design. The opposite is ‘featuritis,’ which is a compulsion many designers have to try and bake more features than necessary into their products and services.
The problem with featuritis is that with extra features comes extra layers of complexity. It takes time for users to learn and acclimate to new functions, which may overwhelm newcomers and drive them away.
To keep it simple, fight the urge to add more design elements to your client sites if they don’t point back to your business and user experience strategies. Go back to the basics, chiseling away until you’re left with only the core functionality your clients’ users need.
Hasson recommends utilizing clear CTAs above the fold that send users towards their intended action within a single click. If you’re designing a website with many pages, remember that the information architecture goes a long way. Make it easy to perform intended actions within five seconds or fewer in the websites you design, and prioritize functionality over aesthetics. You can change the look and feel, but functionality is non-negotiable.
3. It’s not about you, it’s about them
“Hone in on intent to be more human-centric,” Hasson says. That’s good UX. “We do this visually with colors, shapes and layouts that highlight important information, but ultimately whatever we create needs to match users’ expectations.” That means that we often have to remove our own preferences and focus on what the people we’re designing for want.
There’s a well-documented phenomenon called the ‘false-consensus effect,’ which refers to people's tendencies to assume that others share their beliefs and behaviors. Consider that same online flower shop. They might display the shop owner’s favorite flower instead of the best-selling ones. To avoid this trap, stay close to your users and don’t assume their preferences until they’ve explicitly stated them or you’ve observed a specific behavior in action.
On that note, avoid industry jargon in your copywriting, and match your clients’ tone of voice to the way their customers naturally speak. Opt for simplicity over fancy words in your messaging and tell stories that champion your clients’ user base. Ultimately, the language you use is all part of the experience you craft, so give thought not only to what you say, but how your audience will perceive it as well.
4. Test for usability
It’s ok if you don’t know everything - in fact, you’re not supposed to. In ‘stepping out of ourselves’ to design for someone else, we have to treat what we think we know as a hypothesis. It’s ok to have a hunch, but we have to recognize our thoughts as assumptions that need to be validated. That’s why it’s so important to run a usability test. It allows you to substantiate your ideas before committing to them.
“When building websites, there are two groups you need to delight: your client, and your clients’ clients,” says Hasson. “Speak to both often, test your designs, and source behavioral data to substantiate your decisions with facts and figures.” This is where a usability test comes in.
Here’s how usability testing works: First, designate a facilitator who guides the user through the testing process, an annotator that documents their observations, and participants who accurately reflect the end users. During the usability test, the facilitator asks users to complete tasks that involve realistic scenarios (ie: add a new friend and message them, create an account and sign up for a recurring service, or update your privacy settings so no one can see this picture). Once completed, you then meet as a team to discuss your findings and refine the testing process.
The way you word tasks is extremely important when usability testing. Small errors can lead to misunderstanding the request, which will skew your data unknowingly. Avoid the priming effect, which is when a user is prompted with a question that may bias their answer (think: ‘you don’t like cold pizza, right?’) Instead, aim to ask neutral questions, and encourage them to think out loud when completing the task instead.
With this type of testing you’ll be able to identify problems in your designs, uncover opportunities for improvement and better learn about the behaviors that drive users’ decision making. Here’s how you can run your own usability tests to ensure alignment between your designs and what your clients’ users expect.
Good design is impactful
The experience of visiting websites has evolved tremendously. (Remember Flash Player?)
We now have a myriad of tools and design elements that enrich the user experience of a website, adding both opportunity and complexity to the decision-making process. But it’s arguably that process - not the tools - that make the modern designer.
When in doubt, Hasson recommends prioritizing what you’ll work on based on the impact it’ll have on your clients’ userbase. By kicking off your design process with research, striving for clarity, having an intimate understanding of the user and testing frequently, you’ll be able to ascertain the most pressing issues to solve first, delighting both your clients and your clients’ clients.
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