Finding the User Experience Sweet Spot in Applications

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User Experience - UXDefining a clear path for your website users is EASY! Define your markets, define the user flow for product purchase, drive traffic, AB test to minimise exits and maximise product purchase… Easy! OK, so maybe it’s not that easy, but the variables always have a logical structure and a single goal.

Defining the user experience (UX) in a complex web or mobile application takes on a whole new level of complexity. I have recently been working on an application UX project that has extremely complex user interactions. It has been in use for 14 years with thousands of users, each with specific needs.

The project goals were clear:

  • It’s time for reinvention (14 years is a long time online). User feedback has suggested we need to update.
  • Modern browser-based apps use new paradigms. We need to investigate these.
  • We need to place our users first! In the past, the programing logic has taken preference over the user experience.

The new application interfaces had to “look and feel” great, but that is just the icing on the cake. First we needed to define the user flow to improve the user experience. Here were my top four UX recommendations, and on reflection, they form the basis of my philosophy after years of application planning.

  1. Address the needs of the first-time, low-to-medium volume users.
  2. Ensure a logical hierarchy to each page.
  3. Group interactions that driven by USER needs rather than programming needs.
  4. Use page real estate to accommodate high-use tasks.

1. The needs of first-time users

“Getting it right” for first time users in a complex app is difficult to achieve. It is often a series of trade-offs. But why is it so important? If the flow is logical for new users, then it is a breeze for higher volume users. Everyone wins! So spend time on it. Think about those initial interactions, minimise the options and strip away the complexity where possible. Use ‘onboarding’ tours to help fast track the learning experience. Here are some excellent examples of onboarding.

Remove the ‘guesswork’ for users: use wizards for new data entry and conditional forms if needed. Be upfront with the user. Explain what is expected of them by using alerts, warnings and notification feedback boxes. Be clear with form validation. Do this on the run, not a cryptic feedback message after all the action happens. That just gets users hot under the collar.

2. Logical page hierarchy

This point is easy to achieve, but so often ignored.

Use strict hierarchical font sizes from headings to content to data groupings, along with indentation and alignment. Repetition and colour play a huge role in emphasising critical elements within the page.

In fact, for me it is the one thing that I instantly notice. If page hierarchy isn’t right, users become disoriented and unsure of what to do next. You can read more about design hierarchy here. The principles of communication design are critical and this is often achieved when a graphic designer and a UX modeller work closely together. In some cases this maybe the same person, but it’s rare to meet a graphic designer with a passion for understanding how applications work and the intricacies of user experience.

Be predictable, use common metaphors and icons. Not only does it result in an application that is more ‘accessible’, your users will love you for it. You can establish a clean user flow that has visual logic and structural meaning. The less people need to think, the better.

3. Grouping interactions & data to suit the user

A common issue with complex applications is finding the optimum way for data to be collected or delivered to a page. The jargon for this is “Data In/Out” or “Data I/O”. It is often affected by the database structure and because the software engineers are responsible for this, quite often the user gets overlooked.

When designing your UX, don’t think about how it’s going to be done. Work out the best experience and flow and THEN work out how to build it. If database engineers get into the conversation too early, the front end will start to look like the back end – ugly. Group data and collect data in a way that makes sense as you move through the app and find workarounds for the technical issues.

Yes, there can be a ‘healthy discussion’ in the planning stages between the design and technical teams, but find a balance that is weighted in the users favour.

Quite often this issue will appear as an application grows in size over time. Extra field here, extra field there and before you know it, the logical user flow becomes distorted. Thinking “user first” will help minimise the issue.

4. Page real estate

Be brutal with page planning. Each element should fight for its place. Within the hierarchical structure of the page or mobile screen, priority must be given to high-use tasks. These should be visible before you start scrolling – above the fold.

This space needs to communicate very clearly what is required now, and what the next steps are. It can be difficult to achieve on a small mobile screen – but spend the time to model each scenario and you will work out a solution.

Don’t let the inmates run the asylum

The process of UX is about balance and sacrifices always need to be made.

  • Balance between user verses programmer.
  • Balance between task and layout.
  • Balance between user groups.

The days of software developers designing interfaces is long gone. UX has come leaps and bounds in the past 8 years, particularly since the introduction of small touch screens. We’ve been forced to innovate ways to make our interfaces work in a fluid manner – to adjust to any screen size. It has resulted in a far more pleasant experience.

We’ve managed this by introducing the role of the UX designer as an essential part of the software team. So, don’t skimp on the UX.  It won’t matter how smart your app or site is if it’s no fun to use.

Good Luck!

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