You want to make a great user experience for your app and website, but you’re not a designer - where do you begin?
In this article I’m going to:
- Clarify what user experience and a lot of these design terms actually mean.
- Explain how thinking about your users and customers leads to a better experience.
- Look at how we approach user experience research at DabApps.
A lot of design industry jargon can be confusing, so let’s demystify user experience vs design and some of the other terms you may have heard of. The words UI (User Interface) and UX (User Experience) are also often used together so there’s no wonder people get mixed up.
While these terms can be applied to many fields, we are primarily concerned with digital experiences - websites and software applications.
I’ve sometimes heard business people talk about ‘doing the user experience’ or the design part of a project as if it’s like applying a coat of paint to an already built or designed thing.
Though entirely understandable given the level of jargon out there, this is not quite right: user experience is something intangible that people feel, and something that needs considering from the start.
Unpacking 'user experience' and other design terminology
Let’s breakdown some of these common terms. We’ll then look at who ‘users’ are, and how/why you should think about their user experience.
Design is the process of imagining and planning the creation of products and systems - creating solutions for people, and can encompass both user experience and user interface design. Often people think design is ‘the colouring in phase’ - it’s much more than this!
As the web has matured, design is now an umbrella term covers things like visual design, interface design, content structure and strategy, as well as user experience design.
Usability testing is the process of making sure something works well — with good usability as the goal: that any person can complete tasks without issues in the majority of cases.
Accessibility is the practice of making your websites usable by as many people as possible. Often people think about this in the context of people with disabilities, but in reality good accessibility benefits other groups in different situations.
- Making something work for someone with mobility impairments might also benefit someone holding a baby in one arm, while using a phone in the other.
- Thinking about good colour contrast could help both people with visual impairments and someone trying to read in a badly lit environment.
When building software its often advisable to use good web standards and best practices, as we often get a good level of usability with less effort. A lot of standard web elements (forms, buttons etc) are already accessible out of the box, and already work well with mouse, keyboard and screen readers.
The “UI” in UI design stands for user interface. UI design most commonly refers to the process of making interfaces (usually graphical for the most part, and sometimes voice) in software or devices. UI designers create the visual look and feel of an application’s interface, colours, fonts, spacing - the aesthetics.
Copy is something that's often overlooked, but without them our designs would be lost.
Copywriters (or UX Writers) help craft copy that helps users complete the task at hand, while also considering a brand's tone of voice, whether with a word or two in the right place, or something more substantial.
Successful copy will blend into the background, and not be noticed by the user, but provide valuable context and guidance.
User Experience (or UX) is in essence the emotions and attitudes a person has about using a particular product, system or service, and all the touchpoints around it.
It deals with how someone interacts with a system, both initially and subsequently over time. It can be subjective in nature, as it can relate to a person's perceptions (such as ease of use and efficiency) which can be different between users.
How can we design for user experience?
User Experience Design is designing for not how something looks, but how it works and feels.
Within the context of app or site design, UX Designers look at the higher level flow of a site or app, how information is laid out and how screens and actions flow together, and how this relates to a user’s perspective of it.
UX designers focus on (mainly) digital touchpoints, creating wireframes and prototypes as outputs, combined with user interviews, and profiling/testing users.
Service Design - If UX Design deals with the experience someone has using software (the tip of the iceberg), service design looks at the bigger picture (the iceberg itself).
Service design often looks at the experience of a specific service end-to-end - think applying for a passport online: the application process, as well as how the passports applications are processed, how applications are dealt with, where the passports are printed and supplied and more.
Service design is important, as the best website can’t make up for a poor customer service experience or badly design product packaging when delivered.
Understanding the user
If user experience is all about feeling and emotion, you can ensure people have a good user experience by properly understanding who they are, and where and how they are using your software.
The terms 'user' or 'customer' can sometimes can feel a bit sterile and disconnected — they are, after all, just people like you or I.
To resolve this, UX designers often build up example profiles of users called personas, which can help teams understand who they are building a product for, and in what context.
If you have existing users of your product, you want them to keep using your product and not move away and for new users you want to deliver a better experience than your competitors to entice them to sign up.
User experience doesn’t just impact your customers, but people inside your business as well. Within your business people may be using:
- Content management tools
- Booking tools
- CRM Systems
- Order management tools
...all of which can be impacted positively by considering the user experience.
Why make the effort?
As technology advances, things that seem the accepted baseline become outdated. Look at the example of Blockbuster Video. For years they were the market leader against Netflix (both of whom rented mail-order DVDs).
As soon as internet speeds allowed Netflix to start streaming video, Netflix jumped into this market, and over time BlockBuster lost their market position, and in the end folded. The reason for this was the better user experience: having to head out to a shop for a DVD, v.s. just browsing and watching.
By regularly keeping track of what challenges your users face and opportunities that technology advances bring means you won’t lose your competitive edge.
Benefits can include:
- Making something easier, more efficient and pleasurable for your users.
- Increasing loyalty and reducing customer turnover — they are less likely to go elsewhere if they like your software.
- Increase productivity of users — they get things done faster.
- Reduce operating costs — if something is simpler/easier to use, less customer is support needed on your part, which means more profit
…It’s basically the right thing to do!
How you can be user centred through user research
Think about who your users of your business are. Focus on their needs, context, motivation and goals. Write down how you think using your software makes someone’s life better/easier, and if not, figure out what you can change to target this.
Look at people’s behaviour, emotions, and capabilities. Talk to people. Interview them. Watch them use your software. Read reviews from them of your app. Read reviews of competing apps - what do people like? What do people dislike?
As you make decisions, think about your users and their needs, based on your research findings.
Work with your developers and stakeholders and map out the journey of someone’s usage of your product - it’s not just about software. Read up about user journey maps and how they can help.
If you can, hire a broad and diverse range of employees on your team. By having a wide range of people on your team, you can ensure you get a wider range of perspective on things - important when thinking about others.
How we do this at DabApps
We usually start design projects with workshops, collaborating with our customers and stakeholders.
We walk you through some simple exercises that help you try and get into your user’s headspace, and mapping out the user journey through your product, identifying opportunities and pain points to focus on.
It’s very much a collaborative and co-creative exercise, using visual communication tools to share information, with everyone contributing.
We go out and do user research on-site with users, observing them using software. We also interview them, finding out what they are used to using and how they think about things conceptually.
We then take this information, along with business goals, and build a prototype, usually using a prototyping tool to simulate the experience of using the software or app.
We’ve found repeatedly testing and iterating on prototypes with users to be a cost-effective way of finding out how effective something is.
While it’s impossible to fully put oneself in someone's shoes, by focusing on the user, with a pragmatic approach to both user research and testing, we end up with products that are both easier and nicer to use.
Research your users to find out what people need and insights into their behaviours. Use experience & interaction design to figure out how your product works and things flow together. Tie this together with visual design to determine what your product looks like.
Making changes earlier on in the process before development is both cheaper and easier, and using users as a guiding compass alongside stakeholder expertise often leads to the best result.
If you have any upcoming projects you feel you need help on, or need help understanding your users, do get in touch!