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Tuesday, September 16, 2008,10:15 PM
Rethinking the User Experience
By Benjamin Palmer

Web designers should consider how using a site reflects upon the brand

In the interactive world, we have a discipline called User Experience, or UX for short. We've got a whole department of people that thinks about it. It's the first phase of many online projects and it's a part of every interactive RFP that any company receives. It's kind of a big deal in the online universe.

You may have heard of this. Or perhaps you've heard of Information Architecture (IA), Experience Design (XD) and/or User Interface Design (UI), terms sometimes used interchangeably with UX. Regardless of what you call it, the key is understanding what the discipline is and what it does.

The first thing to understand when getting your head around UX is that it's an umbrella term for different disciplines that have been converging and co-evolving for the past couple of decades. These include User Interface Design, Information Design, Usability, Interaction Design, Graphic Design, Information Architecture and Human-Computer Interaction. (How's that for a lot of jargon?)

Less important than intimately understanding each subdiscipline is the idea that at the center of all of this is the user. (In the true fashion of the UX community, even the usage of the word "user" is heavily debated.) Ultimately, UX is about fostering a deep understanding of the people who use your Web site, how it fits into their lives, and the empathy necessary to create design solutions that lead to great experiences.

Talking in strictly digital terms, UX is that amorphous middle ground where it's not really graphic design per se, or the art direction, but it's how we structure and craft a person's interactions with the stuff we create. Where does the navigation go? Do we put this on the main page or on a secondary page? Will anyone care about that thing if they have to click twice to get there? Is this interface as easy to use as it could be?

On the surface this just seems like a trendy way of saying "making a Web site." And that's definitely a part of it. But for us, there's more. We've been thinking that the process that goes into thinking about UX should apply more holistically to a brand's overall behavior, so you can make some user-centered marketing.

I like to start with the notion that the audience actually cares about what we're doing. This isn't always a flawless starting point, but it works most of the time, and is at least fairly true if you're talking about a Web site. Whatever the circumstances, if someone ends up on your site, they're there on purpose. Something caught their eye and led them there, and they want the experience to be a good one.

So, giving a crap, check. This actually puts you in a good place to do your job, because you get to think about being nice to your audience. What do they want or need? How can you help them? How can you make this work for them? You get to think about them as individuals who want to have a nice moment with your brand, find out some exciting information and/or do something new.

In more traditional advertising, the thought might be people actually want whatever product or service you're marketing, and what you're doing is less about convincing them or interrupting them, and more about announcing and making available to them in the most interesting way possible. It's getting them super amped about a decision they kind of want to make anyhow.

Let's use the darling of UX people everywhere as an example: the iPhone. Looking at Apple.com's product marketing site for the iPhone you may wonder, how hard does this site really have to work? IPhones sell themselves. But after spending some time with the content on Apple.com/iphone, it's hard not to want to run out and get one even if your spouse wants you to make the overdue trip to Ikea. And what is it that's exciting you? The features? Yes. The industrial design? Yes, of course. But also, the way those icons move around and wobble. The way the camera rotates when you rotate. The way you can pinch in on a Safari page. The user experience.

Looking at it through the eyes of Apple it's almost blindingly obvious: a quality user experience can drive sales and adoption, and it can become an advocate for your product or brand--just like marketing.

As the owner of a digital marketing company, this becomes very interesting. The UX gang is charged with thinking of the user first when designing a site. Coincidentally, so are our marketing guys. But in many shops, despite the "user-centered" nature of both these groups, they're often at odds. The marketing guys might be thinking of the user in terms of, "Will this initiative emotionally move the user enough to think about this brand more often?" And the UX guys might be thinking about, "Will the user feel like clicking on that button or would they prefer it be a link?"

What if we added more to the UX designer's plate? What if we not only charged them with thinking about the interface, but also how that interface reflected upon the brand?

It's glaringly apparent, but it's only now entering into the UX conversation. When looking at Vista or Mac OS X, it seems obvious. But it goes deeper. Even now, I can think of three to four brands I feel negatively toward because their sites are so hard to use. There are companies I'll work to avoid just because their sites have given me grief. Wouldn't their marketers want to know that? Shouldn't the UX people be considering this possible impact on the company's operations?

UX and marketing a brand on the Web are inextricably related. Again, perhaps not the deepest insight, but it's time we recognize it and account for it in a methodical way.

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