User experience (UX) design focuses on enhancing user satisfaction by improving how we interact with the websites, applications and devices in our lives. In other words, UX makes complex things easy to use.
While the term “UX” is relatively new, the concept of user-friendly design has been around for generations. “Good design is good business,” the second president of IBM, Thomas J. Watson, famously told Wharton students in 1973. “We are convinced,” he said, “that good design can materially help make a good product reach its full potential.”
Watson had just retired as IBM CEO, having grown the company tenfold. He predicted the trend that made companies like Apple, Facebook and Google what they are today. Apple didn’t invent the smartphone, but it made one very easy to use. Facebook wasn’t the first social network, but its simplicity was instrumental to its growth. And there were many other search engines before Google, but none made it so easy to find the most relevant information. All three companies became successful by improving user experience for products that already existed.
User experience contributes to many other success stories. Jeff Bezos invested 100 times more into customer experience than advertising during the first year of Amazon. AirBnB’s Mike Gebbia credits UX with taking the company to $10 billion. Tom Proulx, co-founder of Intuit, was one of the pioneers of usability testing, putting emphasis on ease of use in his products.
Good user experience is clearly good for business. Studies show that companies that invest in UX see a lower cost of customer acquisition, lower support cost, increased customer retention and increased market share, according to a study done by Forrester. When compared to their peers, the top 10 companies leading in customer experience outperformed the S&P index with close to triple the returns. Forester Research shows that, on average, every dollar invested in UX brings 100 dollars in return. That’s an ROI of a whopping 9,900 percent.
To Improve User Experience, Start by Observing Customers Interact with Your Product
The first step to improving your own UX (and reaping the business benefits) is to conduct a usability assessment of your product, application or website. This process uncovers the most common problems. Often, usage analytics indicate UX issues with your product. Usability testing explains these issues.
In my agency, we regularly see websites that are underperforming because they were designed without the end user in mind. In these situations, executives who think they know their users typically make these important decisions. As a result, websites are designed for the executives and not for the customers.
Proper UX design requires understanding users’ needs and creating a solution that solves their problems and helps complete their tasks in the easiest and quickest way possible. To do this properly, you need to get inside users’ heads by interviewing them and observing them while they interact with the product. Mental models can then be constructed outlining users’ behavioral patterns. In turn, those can be applied to prototype products that better serve the users’ needs. With continuous testing and adjustments, you can improve ease of use, reduce mistakes and increase overall customer satisfaction.
Despite popular belief, usability testing doesn’t have to be conducted behind mirrored glass with hundreds of participants. According to Norman Nielsen Group, the world’s foremost authority in UX, observing and interviewing just five users usually uncovers about 85 percent of all usability problems. Simply recruit five participants who represent your actual users and offer them an incentive to use your product in an observed environment. Give them real tasks to complete. Ask them to think aloud, but don’t help or guide them. Observe their behavior and listen to their feedback to uncover potential issues.
Make Good UX a Part of Your Internal Processes
After fixing usability problems, think about how you can incorporate UX design into your process to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. One way to do so is by integrating pattern libraries. A pattern library is a collection of previously tested user interfaces that solve common design problems. Organizations that rely on pattern libraries, as opposed to reinventing the wheel each time, see a 50 percent increase in product development efficiency. You can develop your own pattern library or use public libraries like UI Patterns or the Yahoo Design Pattern Library.
In business, speed and efficiency are paramount. I recommend starting with low-fidelity wireframes. At Intechnic, we sketch initial ideas on paper and focus on only the most important elements first. We use Sharpies — thick lines force you to limit the details you can fit on a sheet of paper. Eventually, we transfer designs onto a dry-erase board where we can fill in more detail and play with variations. Once designs pass internal reviews, we convert them into high-fidelity interactive prototypes that simulate real-life scenarios and can be tested with real users. There are a number of tools for that: Axure, Uxpin, Balsamiq and iRise, just to name a few.
User acceptance is critical to any product, project or service. A good rule of thumb: test early (with real users) and test often. Businesses simply fail without happy customers. Make yours happy with good UX.