User experience is one of the most important aspects of any online business or online marketing strategy. Strictly defined, user experience is the sum total of a user’s impressions, feelings, and thoughts as he/she navigates your platform (for the purposes of this article, we’ll be referring to a website as the target for user experience design, though any number of interactive platforms could be a worthy substitute). Making a user happy, giving him/her easy, convenient directions, and eliciting feelings of comfort and familiarity are quintessential to a positive user experience.
So what value is a great user experience? First and foremost, it gets a user to stay on your site for longer, and increases the likelihood that he/she will come back. Second, it increases the likelihood that he/she will tell others about the experience, peripherally increasing your traffic. Last but not least, it can affect your standing in other areas of the Internet—for example, great user experiences are correlated with higher search engine rankings, and if your user experience ratings are high, you’ll be more likely to establish relationships with other major players in the industry.
Without a solid UX design in place, your strategy will immediately fall apart. That being said, it’s important to understand some core truths about UX design before plunging in:
First is a core misconception about UX design, and it has to do with that pesky word “design.” When people think about design, especially when it comes to web design, they think of aesthetic choices like coloration, layout, structure, and so on. While these are all important to user experience, UX design and web design are not intrinsically the same. Web design can have all kinds of motivations—for example, you could make the most beautiful site possible, or make a site that only cares about funneling people to conversion. A successfully designed site from a UX perspective might be beautiful and have elements of conversion optimization, but its primary focus is always the user’s interaction.
Plus, most UX design includes more than just the “aesthetic” part of design. There’s also sitemapping, branding, navigation, and similar subjects to consider.
This is a hard concept to accept, because we’d like to imagine that the world always behaves rationally. Because user experience depends on the instincts, intuitions, first impressions, and emotions of the individual user (none of which are standardly predictable), some of the best UX design choices are inherently irrational.
Let me illustrate with a simple example. Imagine a navigation bar with a horizontal layout. It might make sense that your user’s eye is drawn to the leftmost item first, as most American users read from left to right. But you might discover in testing that the middle item is usually the first seen and first clicked. Depending on your priorities, this could demand a redesign. In UX, you can’t trust your instincts—you can only trust the tests.
On the surface, UX seems like it would be a fun, relatively easy experience. It might seem like designing an amusement park, adding new features that look fun and experimenting with different combinations until you find the perfect layout. But the reality is, UX is a hard, tedious, and arduous process. As we saw in my previous point, your instincts and beliefs are constantly called into question by real data, and in many cases, you’ll end up with a product you don’t subjectively “like” because it happens to work best.
The unpredictability of users makes the process even more difficult. You might find that a portion of your audience loves your site, but another portion hates it—what do you do then? The unfortunate answer is usually, start from scratch.
In other ways, UX design is really quite simple. In theory, it can be reduced to a single process: find out what your users want and give it to them. Your users are the only thing that matters—it doesn’t matter what your company wants, what you want, or what the design award organizations want—if your users are happy, you’ve been successful. If they aren’t, you’ve failed. Conducting surveys and tests can help you uncover what people are actually thinking and feeling, but that human factor is still the simplest and yet most complicated part of the whole process.
UX isn’t something you do once. It isn’t a phase of the web design and development process that you go through, settle on, and then ignore for the remainder of your online marketing campaigns. It is a constantly ongoing process. New technologies emerge, new competitors grow popular, and user needs constantly change. If you want to build (and keep) a successful UX design, you have to learn from and adapt to those changes. It’s an ongoing process that can’t be abandoned.
When it comes to UX design, your best bet is usually working with an expert. That means recruiting an outside consultant, hiring an in-house expert, or working with a professional agency. Taking it upon yourself to handle all the UX changes to your site will likely end up in disaster, or at least unmet potential. It really is the most important element of your business as it stands online, so don’t underestimate it.