Web Directions UX: Making Your Users Feel Special

Matthew Magain

Andy Budd kicked off the Web Directions User Experience conference this morning with some terrific insight into what makes a site that really works so memorable for the site’s users.

The core message of Andy’s presentation was that other industries have long understood the importance of a positive user experience, and the Web can learn a lot from this.

His presentation gave lots of tips, with plenty of rich examples:

  1. First impressions count: Hoteliers understand this, hence good hotels offer smiling greeters in the lobby, chocolates and written notes on your pillow.
  2. Attention to detail gets noticed: Apple are a company that realize the difference that attention to detail can make — consider the effort that has been put into the packaging of their products, which results in customers actually photographing the unboxing of their iPod. From the sound of the door closing on a new BMW to the rubbish bins at Disney theme parks being themed, people notice this stuff.
  3. Personalisation and customisation matters: Starbucks allows its customers to customise their coffees, and the Nintendo Wii and other games let users create their own characters. Second life takes this to a new level to accommodate people’s needs to assert their individuality. For web developers, something as simple as welcoming people by using their first name can have an enormously positive impact on their experience on your site.
  4. Dripfeed your information: Andy reference computer games as a huge source of inspiration for him, and showed a video of a combat game that taught players how to perform tasks incrementally. By gradually releasing information about how to perform tasks in digestable chunks, you can avoid overwhelming them. As an example, Basecamp displays optional videos for new features, and the Yahoo! site utilised a lightbox to explain new features when they launched their redesign last year.
  5. Take care of the mundane: Andy referenced the hospitality industry heavily when making this point — the doorman hailing you a cab, the waiter filling your glass when you don’t notice, and the barmaid remembering your drink are all great examples of what makes a positive user experience in one moment, which can carry the user through to a positive experience throughout their entire visit. Web analogies include taking care of unnecessary tasks for users by prefilling them with intelligent defaults.
  6. Make it fun: Andy showed an example of a drink package that had the text “Stop looking at my bottom” on the underside of the container. Little touches like this obviously require the right context and a bit of thought to do properly, but when they work they can make your users smile for the rest of the day. Another example was a personalized email from MOO, which read “Hi, I’m little MOO, the software that will be managing your order…” A banking site might not get away with being this cute, but it’s definitely possibly to be playful without being unprofessional.
  7. Feedback is important: Poker machines are feedback-heavy — they emit a “bling” sound, and the cleverly crafted “ding” of coin as it hits the metal tray causes other punters to take notice, sit down and try using a machine themselves. Likewise, a button always lights up in an elevator — if it doesn’t then you might wonder whether the lift is broken or not! Status bars and other indicators to let a user know where in the process they are presently located help manage expectations and keep the user engaged.
  8. Recommendations are powerful: last.fm is a good example of how recommending music to a user is a terrific service that really adds value. If you can provide contextual information to your users that taps into the knowledge that the entire user base has created, then your users will pay attention.
  9. Users love competitions: By offering a competitive element — whether that be through scores and a leaderboard, or just by letting people “collect” things — badges, blog posts etc — your userbase will have an additional reason to return to your site and engage with your data. Leaderboards can have a negative effect too, of course — the digg leaderboard stopped being a useful indicator when those users at the top started posting quality over quantity, in order to maintain their position on the leaderboard.

These experiences can be plotted as a user experience curve — an actual graph that, while subjective, shows a user’s positive and negative experience over time. Andy mentioned Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as applied to the Web. The items in the hierarchy were:

  1. functional
  2. reliable
  3. usable
  4. convenient
  5. pleasurable
  6. meaningful

I agree with Andy’s comment that it is very rare that a user experience on the Web meets those levels of experience at the top of the hierarchy (pleasurable, meaningful experiences). He encouraged attendees to look to other industries, and other areas in the offline world for inspiration to bring positive user experiences to the Web.

Three members of Team SitePoint are wandering around at the conference, so feel free to come up and say hi!

Photo credit: Dave Shea