Beyond Usability – Engaging Users through the Experience
At the core of user centered design we have four main ingredients:
1) A solid information architecture (IA) and navigation system,
2) relevant and meaningful content,
3) an appropriate and consistent interaction model(s), and
4) high quality visual treatments.
These ingredients are, beyond question, crucial to the success of any web site or software design. However, they have become expectations of the user. To take it to the next level, interface design must transcend expectations and consider the holistic experience it provides.
In this post I explore how that experience can be enhanced and provide examples of sites and software that are going beyond usability and engaging users through the experience.
Usability is the Foundation
As a user interface design consultant I always start with usability – is your site or software (or device) usable? Can people accomplish what they desire on the interface without pulling out their hair or hitting a dead end? Is the interface optimized for completion of key tasks as identified in user research?
That being said, to the disdain of interface designers and usability experts, sometimes poor usability will not cause users to leave your site – it all depends on the cheese. Let me explain. Research shows a positive correlation between how much a user wants something and how much pain they are willing to endure to get it. This is referenced by Human Factors’ in the form of the Columbia Obstruction Device (COD), shown below in Figure 1.0. COD researchers determined that a threshold exists for how much pain (electric shock) a subject (rodent) will endure to get what it wants (in this case, cheese).
Figure 1.0: Columbia Obstruction Device
As it turns out, there is a point at which the cheese just isn’t good enough to go through the shock of obtaining it. From the user’s perspective, the same holds true for web sites and software.
Think, for example, about certain governmental sites. You have the task of finding, filling out, and submitting a specific form. You arrive at the site and discover that finding that specific form is harder than expected. Nevertheless, you continue browsing, searching, and clicking on every link and tab that makes sense. Although it may not be electric shocks (or let’s hope it isn’t), you do waste precious time and become frustrated while trying to complete your task. Now take the same type of task and apply it to a retail site; only this time, you are in search of a replacement cable for your printer.
You arrive at the site and click once, twice, three times and you’re gone…off to the next site.
As the designer of that web site, it boils down to the fact that your cheese (or cable) just wasn’t worth the effort. For sites and software for which there are competitors (or the cheese is not that good), poor usability will result in user drop off. Design of a solid navigation system on a well thought out IA layered with consistent interaction and meaningful content and visual treatment allows users to complete their tasks. Otherwise known as usability – this will always be the foundation of user centered design and at this point is a basic expectation of most users.
Considering the Experience
While the core dimensions of usability – IA & Navigation, Content, Interaction, and Presentation – continue to be the heart of user centered design, there’s another player in the game to consider – User Experience. No longer is it enough to have solid usability. It is a foregone conclusion that good (credible) web sites and software will provide a usable interface enabling users to complete their tasks. It is now a question of creating an experience that supports and engages users along their journey and keeps them coming back for more.
User experience begins with users’ very first impression the instant they arrive at a web site or launch a software application. These initial impressions and corresponding perceptions of value are then molded through their experiences using the navigation systems and interaction models as they find content and partake in features and functionality. The experience of a site or application is more than simply the gathering of data but more about the experience of consuming and assimilating that data in a way that is meaningful and potentially satisfying.
A few things I like to think about when attempting to design an engaging user experience are:
Matching users’ mental models.
The concept of a mental model dates back to the mid-1900’s and is still relevant today. A mental model is basically our understanding of how something should work. The closer we match this expectation in a user interface, the more intuitive it will feel to a user and therefore the more comfortable the experience will be.
Supporting the brand with the experience.
Brand goes beyond colors and logo and into the feel that a site or application provides when we traverse it. That ‘feel’ is then associated with the brand (for good or bad). Thus, it behooves us to extend or mimic brand attributes and use the brand experience to enhance the user experience. You can extend brand through usability by incorporating things like interaction (is it slick, traditional, cutting edge?), copy writing (is it serious, playful, minimalistic?) and presentation. For more information, check out a recently published report by J.D. Power and Associates that ranks automotive manufacturer’s web sites and the balance of brand and usability.
Making it satisfying and maybe even fun.
Sometimes completing a task in itself can feel satisfying (imagine successfully finding, filling, and submitting that required government form…). Other times a task is just a task no matter how well designed the flow. To engage users I like to consider interesting interaction models, choice of controls, and presentation to spice it up a bit. Think faceted navigation for example. In lieu of a hierarchical decision tree in which a pre-defined set of choices appears to a user one after another, how about allowing users the flexibility of deciding which choices are important to them and in what order? Throw on top of that a slick interaction or results display that isn’t just a page refresh and load and you might have something one could even consider fun.
Double checking the usability and usefulness.
When thinking about usability we need to make sure we’re not simply checking off a list of generic heuristics. Understanding the needs of unique and sometimes disparate user groups who engage with the interface allows us to validate the usability and perceived usefulness of a design. It’s easy to become comfortable with what “I” think a design should look like so I often remind myself (and my clients) to embrace user testing to be sure.
Examples of Design Experience
Show Don’t Tell.
In my high school creative writing class I recall my teacher telling students to ‘show don’t tell’ if you want to engage your readers. The same holds true with interface design. Ford has done a fantastic job of taking what could have been a simple (and boring) numeric display and instead provided an interface that feels almost like a game experience (Figure 2.0). It compels drivers to pay attention to their fuel economy via visual positive reinforcement.
Figure 2.0: Ford SmartGuage
Transform the Mundane into Interesting.
When you think of accounting and finance management does your face light up? Well, maybe for some this topic is fun but for most it’s a grudge task that must be completed to ensure all ends meet. Quicken has taken the checkbook user experience and made it into one that could even be considered enjoyable (yes, I admit I love my Quicken). Use of color, graphics, sound, and layout has allowed for an experience that provides value and efficiency that some even look forward to (depending on the color of the numbers…).
Figure 2.1: Quicken Checkbook Experience
Engaging Interaction – it Has to be Apple.
Remember Tom Cruise in the Minority Report? While we’re not quite there yet, companies like Apple continue to get closer with their direct manipulation interfaces. Allowing users to push and pull and play (!) as they interface with a site or application can be the ultimate of user experience (and of course may not be suitable to all user groups – here’s where user research comes in again).
Figure 2.2: Direct Manipulation Interface
Figure 2.3: Apple iPhone Commercial
Apple has begun incorporating more direct manipulation interfaces into their products.
Remember the Spinning Clock?
Now I’ll date myself with a recollection of the processing indicator from the original Apple Macintosh. So many years later I can’t remember whether it was in fact a spinning clock (sort of like the BMW propeller logo) or if it was something else. As with the evolution of the Mac, designers’ have evolved the processing indicator into something beyond a visual cue that your machine or web site has in fact not locked up but is still loading your request. As shown below, Websitegrader.com does a good job engaging the user while they wait for the site to process their assessment request.
Figure 2.4: Websitegrader.com and User Engagement
It’s Kind of Like Plating.
Master Chefs know that half of the battle is in the presentation of the food on the plate (well, maybe not half but at least 5 points if you watch Iron Chef America). Diners’ perception of taste is impacted by the colors and visual presentation of food – it is therefore part of the experience of eating the food. So it goes with site and software visual design. The Journal of Behaviour and Information Technology contains a study showing that users make a judgment about a site’s quality based on its design—and they do so in about a twentieth of a second.
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