Are You User Experienced?

Web Directions UX08Last Friday I was lucky enough to spend an entire day at a web conference without seeing one line of HTML or single CSS declaration. In fact, I can’t even remember hearing the word “Ajax” once.

I learned a lot though!

There’s no argument that the Web is a relatively technical medium, so it’s with good reason that we all spend a lot of time thinking about, discussing and practicing the technical skills of the Web.

Nevertheless, when you boil it all down, the Web is really just one big, overly-complicated pipe that humans use to shout information back and forward to each other.

A cursory look at the millions of pages written on code, standards and other technical matters suggests we may be spending a little too much time thinking about how our shouting gets through, and not nearly enough time thinking about how we’re shouting.

The theories behind what makes good shouting are broadly referred to as the soft skills of the web — areas such as user experience design, information architecture, usability testing and research design — and that is exactly what Web Directions: User Experience was all about.

Andy Budd at the Melbourne Town HallAndy Budd is arguably the world’s best-known “user experience designer”, and kicked off the morning with what was for me the best presentation of the day.

Andy’s key idea was to look hard at those great experiences that we have in the offline world, and see how we might apply them to the Web.

For most of us, vacations are some of our most intense and memorable experiences, and Andy spent a lot time discussing some of the techniques that luxury hotels use to brand your experience with good feelings. In Andy’s view, the most crucial times for setting these good vibes are the very beginning of your experience: when you’re asking yourself “Will this be a nice place?”, and as you leave, when you’re asking “Was this a nice place?”

Hotels tackle this challenge by putting their most experienced and savvy staff — managers, doormen, porters and receptionists — at these most sensitive places in the “experience chain.” They’ve figured out that if the hotel can nail the start and finish, it will take a major disaster in between those two times to wreck the customer’s experience.

This also explains the immense time, money and effort poured into hotel lobbies, from Vegas to Paris to Moscow. Most of us have a hard time shaking the feeling of starry-eyed wonder we get as we pull up to a cavernous, lush lobby fizzing with smartly-dressed people being unusually nice to us. Years later, that memory is often still one of the strongest we have.

Now, to be fair, yes, it is very hard to build online applications that can truly compete with the immersive, sensory overload of a grand hotel.

But, for me, what it does demonstrate is how hotels have managed to take what could be a necessary but emotionally empty experience — after all, the check-in process is for the hotel’s benefit, not your’s — and re-engineer it into a happy, memorable highlight of your trip.

Very clever trick, that.

Maslow's Hierachy of NeedsAccording to interaction designers, experiences should fit somewhere into a “hierachy of needs” — from functional at their most rudimentary, through to meaningful at their best.

The sad truth for all of us the vast majority of “web experiences” fall into the bottom half of that triangle. We all know the online world is packed to the rafters with emotionally empty experiences.

For example, how many times have you seen the following:

  • No access. Please log in to continue.
  • Sorry, page could not be found. Please try again.
  • Loading…… 64%…65%…
  • User Error! Duplicate entry “24” for key 1

We’re probably all guilty of designing sites that speak with this voice at some time — I know I am. Our intrepid user needs some feedback, and rather than calming and reassuring them, we slap them with all the warmth of a parking inspector.

The truth is that we probably don’t think a lot when we write these little communications. They’re usually vaguely functional, so we pump them out by rote and move on to more important and interesting things.

The thing is, when we do this we miss a huge opportunity. I’ll explain.

At SitePoint, we all regularly work on customer support email (even the CEO). One thing we’ve learned over the years is that a mistake (for instance, a delayed book order) can often be a rare opportunity to create a fan for life.

Generally, at the time these customers come to you, they’re grumpy (often rightly so) and spoiling for a fight. When you make them feel special by solving their problems quickly and politely, they’re often quite surprised and deeply appreciative. The real irony is they are often more impressed and delighted than if their order had gone through without a hitch. You actually get more chance to make a lasting impression if you’re on the back foot.

In a very similar way, people can be more easily affected when you manage to inject a “human touch” into places where they aren’t expecting it.

Andy showed a great example of this principle in use on the Innocent Smoothie box.

The bottom face of any box is generally the least useful surface on any product package. However for the cost of a tiny amount of black ink, the Innocent package designers have provided anyone who happens to glance at the bottom an “Awwwww,.. that’s cute!” moment. Printed in tiny letters on the bottom of the box is ‘Stop looking at my bottom’.

For a tiny moment, a humble package has cut through, given you a wink and spoken to you like a real person. A week later, there’s every chance those “warm and fuzzies” will echo back to you as you’re standing in front of a towering wall of cold beverages.

So, how exactly might this principle transfer to the web?

Picnik's loading screenOne of the best examples I’ve seen recently is

Now, make no mistake, Picnik is a really nice application to begin with.

It’s awfully pretty, slickly designed and has a great set of features.

But it’s often the little things that make the most lasting impression.

As Picnik begins the very necessary download and setup process, their garden-variety progress bar is accompanied by some random “progress commentary”.

  • Picking blackberries…
  • Making sandwiches…
  • Floating kites…
  • Laying out blankets…
  • Warming breeze…

Yes, it’s fluffy and a bit silly. No, it doesn’t tell the user a single thing they need to know. Nevertheless, with very little effort, the Picnik design team have managed to take an empty, totally valueless experience (watching a progress bar) and turn it into an experience that similtaneously builds their brand and the user’s sense of anticipation.

A loss becomes a win.

So, where to now?

For me, perhaps the first step is simply becoming aware of where these “dead spots” are — it’s easy to follow the same patterns that have not been questioned in the past. Learning to look at progress bars and error messages with truly fresh eyes is harder than it sounds.

Have a think about your most recent site developments. Can you identify any “empty experiences” that you might be able to turn around?

If you’re interested in hearing more of Andy’s views on the user experience and the Web in general, Matt was lucky enough to spend some quality time with Andy after the conference. You can read a transcript of Andy’s interview on SitePoint.

Republished from Design View #45