What is user experience: the what, why, and how
Updated: Nov 29, 2021
The term ‘user experience’ (UX) is one of those popular buzzwords that will always have a place in the business narrative. The online experience has progressively become more complex as technology and standards evolve and advance into an increasingly interactive experience. But every new change and addition only reaffirms one fundamental fact:
the success of any online property depends solely on how users perceive it.
As you can imagine, this means you need to offer a holistic user experience. Yet, the concept doesn’t sit well with everyone as admittedly, we are talking about a rather broad term that covers anything from how well the user can navigate around to how content is displayed across various platforms to the ease of use and literally, everything in between. To make things worse – experience is subjective.
It’s easy to see how user experience can be confusing. In the context of web-based properties, every publisher, marketer, industry pro, and even a UX designer could always stand to learn a little bit more about the topic of the day. Let’s start with:
What is user experience?
A large part of the resulting confusion stems from the fact there is no universal definition of user experience. A quick Google search reveals more than a few different interpretations that either describe user experience as
“a person’s emotions and attitudes about using a particular product, system or service”
“an individual’s perceptions and responses” that result from “the use or anticipated use” of above-mentioned properties
or the Freudian one that states user experience encompasses “all the users’ emotions, beliefs, preferences, perceptions, physical and psychological responses, behaviors and accomplishments that occur before, during and after use.”
Some people use Peter Morville’s ‘user experience honeycomb’ to explain what user experience is through its consisting elements (or factors that influence it):
“User experience is not one thing,” says Ron Lanir, Trinity Audio’s Art Director and resident UX/UI expert. “You need to understand that just like any other experience, the interaction of people with any kind of platform/system/product is subjected to multiple parameters that include everything from the messaging to the design and the emotions it evokes with the user. Each element has its own influence in the interaction design and every change you make affects the general experience.”
How usable and easy to use is something is often implied as user experience. However, as most UX designers will tell you – usability is only a part of the overall process, a quality attribute that specifically portrays an intention with the object in question. User experience refers to a wide range of experiences (a sum of them, if you will), ranging from positive to negative and even indifferent.
Whichever way you put it, it’s clear that user experience is a comprehensive set of practical standards and techniques that offer a meaningful and valuable involvement with an object (product or service, application, platform, system, and any other type of digital real estate) by covering every aspect of it: user needs and a combination of multiple disciplines that include graphical and voice interface design, engineering, marketing, and advertising.
User experience vs user interface
It’s important to differentiate the term user experience from user interface (UI), something I’ve seen many people equate. They are closely linked to one another but are two different entities, with user interface being an extremely important part of the UX design.
Simply put, user interface is all that a user sees and interacts with – the look and feel of things. It’s everything palpable on the outside that gives any online property an appeal and nice look. The focus is how a website looks and operates, for instance, meaning the visual design, navigational flow, buttons, layout, and so on.
On the other hand, user experience is an overarching set of elements that cover a vast array of different areas, user interface included. As such, UX consists of every action a user does in relation to the property in question, be it steps before, during or after the actual use. Furthermore, and this is very important to this entire narrative:
user experience includes interactions that will happen or alter over time as the user needs and expectations evolve, along with the ecosystem around it.
That is why it’s important to make a distinction between UX and UI and UX designers and UI designers, as the two often get mixed up or blended. One cannot go without the other as user experience incorporates interface design and ensures it resonates with the target audience based on all the elements mentioned previously (the user experience honeycomb).
This brings me to another point:
The role of UX design
UX designers have a great responsibility on their shoulders: to study and assess the user’s perception of an object, and ultimately design an experience that is nothing short of ‘great’.
That encompasses the A to Z process of branding, design, integration, function, and usability, supported by user research. All the ‘behind the scenes’ techniques and methodologies start before the user even has a chance to interact, and continue with a thorough testing during the launch.
For instance, having an ecommerce website would entail creating a seamless checkout process so that purchasing via a form is quick, secure, and efficient. A UI designer should always take UX into consideration, and a UX designer should reciprocate the concept from his end. Fairly often, organizations merge the responsibilities of these two positions (because they interact so closely with each other, resulting in confusion) and fail to both understand and reap the benefits of dedicated attention to each area – arguably a necessity for great user experience.
On a personal note, closely working with the publishing industry has allowed me to take a peek into the inner workings of various publishers, both big and small. I’ve noticed that the select few mistake a good user experience for a good-looking and functional website without paying much attention to other elements such as the emerging tech or advertising options.
I partly attribute this to the merging of UI and UX design roles. A UX designer, regardless of how good he or she is, can’t design the experience – it’s a highly subjective understanding that is exclusive to a user. For many, such understanding is a result of direct, yet superficial interaction with an object. That object is almost always a complex system to begin with, involving a multitude of tasks users must go through to perceive the experience as valuable, efficient, and pleasant. In my publisher example, it would be something like having a different option to consume content.
So, the role of UX designers goes beyond any UI-related aspects such as pleasing aesthetics and the overall feel of a design or the voice-controlled and gesture-based versions. User interface design focuses on being highly usable and efficient, while working within a broader context users will find themselves in. Once again, it’s important to note that UX design is about the entire spectrum, not just the surface as UI design is.
Also – UX design won’t work in every situation for every user because, as human beings, we are all different. What works for one person might have the opposite effect on another. The way to go is to create a UX design for specific experiences and promote certain behaviors without forcing yourself to create, impose or predict the actual experience itself.
Why user experience is more than a buzzword
The importance of user experience really comes under the lights when you find yourself working on an interaction design and optimizing a website that’s targeted for your audience.
UX design is a multidisciplinary field where a variety of elements are combined.
Case in point: audio content.
Is it one of the foremost things brands and businesses think of when they employ UX designers to deal with user experience? No.
Is it a top 5 concern? Top 10 maybe? Likely no.
It’s just one example in a myriad of functionalities, features, and values that, when incorporated in a UX design with users’ needs in mind, offers a seamless and fluid user experience.
The Internet was originally conceived as a hypertextual information space but the development of growingly sophisticated frontend and backend technologies has fostered its use through multiple channels and devices, further complicating things. This multifaceted nature is part of the reason why there is so much confusion as expert user experience practitioners have attempted to adapt their practices and terminology to cases beyond the scope of its original application.
“When you work on a project with user experience in mind, you need to adjust all the parameters – just like an equalizer – until you hit that sweet spot where everything is aligned,” says Lanir.
Key elements of good user experience
User experience refines user interactions, eliminating points of friction and reducing the number of necessary steps to complete different tasks. These goals are achieved by using diverse tactics focused at gaining a better understanding or user needs. When it comes to key elements of good UX, I’ll let the expert (the “other Ron”) do the talking:
The more you know, the more effective you’ll be in creating the right user experience for your audience.
Know your brand, what it stands for, what its core values are, and learn how to implement all of it in the process. Know your users, learn about them, understand their needs and their pain points, and figure out how you can help and be of service. Know the tools and the platforms on which you are working. When you know all of this, you can align your and your users’ goals together.
It’s easier for people to relate and remember information when it’s presented as a story with a beginning, middle, and an end, rather than just using plain facts and dry information. Storytelling also helps organize the user journey and creates a kind of story board where you can identify when and where the user will be, how they got there and how they can continue, and most importantly – what they will be doing or gaining at that moment.
Storytelling is important because users are free to roam in any direction they see fit. You should always anticipate all the possible moves in advance and work accordingly to achieve greatness. And for that to happen, you need to create a story.
3. Clear messaging
Any UX designer with more than superficial knowledge of UX design will tell you that you have between three and five seconds to convey the right message to a user that just landed on your homepage. If you haven’t done that in a simple manner above the fold line, chances of users scrolling down ‘with intent’ are slim to non-existing at that point. Being confused or not knowing what’s going on is a bad place to be as a user and it usually will lead to a bounce.
Take the time to refine and clarify your messaging so that your audience will instantly know what your brand is all about. Once you’ve grabbed their attention, create interest so they will continue interacting and deliver the right amount of information at the right time – not too much, not too little, and always in a way that is simple to understand.
4. A communicating visual language – aka design
The Internet is a visual place, which means design must be visible in order for it to convey a concept and evoke emotions related to what’s being seen with our eyes. One way to look at it is as a support for the ‘main event’ to help the user better understand the vision of the business. Design should work alongside content, not overpowering it, and help make a product or service more approachable and easier to use. It’s about designing with functionality in mind.
That being said – visual design is also a way for UX designers to make things beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. Consider it as your main tool to create a visual representation of your product, service, and/or company in the form of a website. All the planning and great ideas have to come together in a design process that knows how to present them correctly.
5. Information architecture
A fancy term that denotes how to organize and prioritize content in a way that users get the right amount and type of content in the right time and at the right place.
You are working on a system that users can interact with – one of your goals. For instance, if your website has 10 pages, I sincerely hope they exist for a reason and you consider them important. In that case, you want your visitors to go through that journey, which is why information architecture is important as you need to organize and prioritize every piece of information you offer. On one hand, you don’t want to overwhelm the user with too much information but on the other hand, you certainly don’t want to create a never ending process of feeding them only bits and pieces of info.
Think about your website’s goal and what you want your audience to do or learn or consume. Figure out what’s important for them in order to achieve those goals. Break it down into steps and deliver them in a simple and clear manner. Remember:
users are free to roam but if you set a course, they will follow.
6. User interface
I’m aware UI is considered as design but I want to emphasize the importance of it as the foundation which you build upon. While design is subjected to the brand and identity of the company, the user interface is subjected to the object’s nature and goals.
A social platform’s layout will look a certain way, and a portfolio or a SaaS company website will have a completely different layout. Having a feed in the middle of the screen probably won’t help a product-based company sell more or create more leads. If the design process for a website is like interior design for a house, then the user interface is the architecture in that analogy.
7. Action and value
Going by the when, where, and how of user experience, it’s critical to not be aggressive with call to action (CTA) elements. Be smart about them – make sure the user has the right amount of info to make a decision they consider calculated or thought-through when being asked to take action. Anticipate the right moment when a user presented with a CTA will gladly do it.
Another thing to take into consideration is a little thing called value proposition. Privacy is a sensitive subject these days so think of something nice to offer users when asking them to punch in their personal details. In general, show you are willing to give with your UX design and not just take.
Keeping track of and learning about user experience
This concludes our little ‘what is user experience’ exercise. It’s not like brands and businesses have slowly begun to realize the importance of their impressions when it comes to existing and potential customers. For the most part, they are aware designing a quality user experience is the best way to build trust and loyalty.
It’s about recognizing the many elements, both the old ones that are getting a fresh shine, and new ones that are being integrated along the way.
“It’s best to have a checklist to stick to – steps to take beforehand to create good UX,” says Lanir. These are:
“It’s a continuous process that can completely change your users’ perception if you miss even one small step of the way.”
The topic of user experience is always going to be a hot one due to evolving technology and user behavior. It’s a straightforward transaction: users demand polished experiences and reward those who provide them.
The good news is that as the standards for good UX continue to grow, users are getting used to better experiences and becoming less tolerant of bad ones. And that means the practice of user experience is expanding. It’s more and more about creating a digital interface that works exactly as your visitors expect: intuitive, well-designed, and easy to use so they don’t have to think twice.
In a way, good UX is like Converse sneakers – never goes out of style, no matter how you revamp it.
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