Practical tips for improving the user experience

When planning web products, user experience is often discussed in vague terms. “I want a better user experience” is replacing “let’s make it more interactive.” The shift of focus from function to the user is positive. Yet often the practicalities of making it happen are no better understood.

In principal the objective of creating a better user experience is sound enough. Wikipedia lists the ISO definition of user experience as being:

[A] person’s perceptions and responses that result from the use or anticipated use of a product, system or service.

Simple enough? To provide a good user experience, we need to ensure a person’s perception of and response to our web product will be positive.

Focus

The problem starts when attempting to articulate which elements that go into building a web product contribute to the user experience. That it all contributes in some way is the obvious, and right answer. This description is still too vague though. As a result the focus too often remains at this high level – the it needs to be good definition.

I work in an organisation where colleagues are often asked to build and maintain websites using a content management system, as one of many diverse duties. This means that they have a limited amount of attention to give this particular task. What attention they have is often reactive and focused on simply doing.

I have been looking for a way to define the key aspects of these websites that will influence whether a user’s experience is positive (or indeed, negative), for our site owners. And to distill this into bite-size chunks that they can implement as work is done. What I have come up with is a split between macro and micro level considerations.

Macro

At this level we are thinking about the design of the web product as a whole and the surrounding ecosystem. This is useful when planning new, or significantly altering existing, sites or apps.

  • Knowing what users want to achieve – their key tasks - is fundamental to understanding why they will come to your site or app. Aim to exceed expectations.
  • Mapping user journeys will help you to identify the steps involved in completing an individual task.
  • Identifying tasks and journeys gives you a window onto how your audience thinks. Use this to inform the structure and terminology of your site or app.
  • Create a visual identity that resonates with your audience. Apply it consistently to encourage familiarity and trust.*
  • Define your tone of voice: both what it is, and what it is not. Follow this when writing copy to develop a consistent personality.*
  • Maintain consistency throughout on- and offline engagement to provide continuity of experience.

Micro

The focus here is on what to do when working on a single page or piece of content.

  • Identify how this particular piece of content helps your audience complete one (or more) of their key tasks. If it doesn’t, cut it.
  • Use hierarchy to structure content and organise layout. This introduces contrast to the content, which provides points of reference and confers relative importance, assisting the user as they scan and read.
  • Support the structure of the content by using appropriate content elements (headings, paragraphs, lists) when writing copy.
  • Apply tone of voice and visual identity decisions (made at the macro-level) to maintain consistency of personality and a familiar experience.
  • Correct spelling and grammar, and sparing use of emphasis, support decisions about the tone of voice and visual identity, to ensure copy is both legible and readable.
  • Incorporate calls to action that guide the user towards completion of their task. These cues creates a sense of progression, by helping to address the what next factor.

Jump in, the water is warm

My aim is to introduce a few practical techniques that can be incorporated into existing working practices. Much of what our site owners already do helps shape the user experience, and it is important to understand the impact. The adjustments – particularly at micro-level – are small.

Many of the points revolve around content and structure. Getting this right goes a long way to creating a good user experience. These tips are only a foundation though. To really engage users strive for great, for enjoyable, for memorable. Admittedly that is a much bigger ask.

User experience (or UX) design is a broad subject and has an even broader range of influences. It isn’t scary though, and nor is it unfathomable. I hope this post demonstrates that and awakens a desire to explore the subject in more depth.