So, what is UX?

Posted 17 January 2017 12:00 AM by Kellie White, Head of UX @ ClearPeople

We strive to create positive user experiences in the digital products and services we deliver but what are the ingredients that make up a good user experience and why are they so important? In this blog I'll explore how these factors affect behaviour, impact brand perception and are critical to user engagement and product adoption.

An experience anecdote

I’d like to start with a story of an exemplary experience I recently had shopping online. This is not solely a digital journey but rather an end-to-end experience embodying a few customer touchpoints. 

We recently redecorated our living room, unfortunately we hadn’t quite thought the decoration through and as a result the current curtains clashed with the wallpaper. What’s a girl to do in this situation? Of course, I absolutely had to get new curtains. 

The living room window is wider than the standard window and most ready-made curtains aren’t quite wide enough, annoyingly I’d have to get them made up. I search online for a made-to-measure service and find two suppliers that I like, both comparative prices, one of which is an established brand and the other a newer, funkier brand breaking into the market.

To make sure the colour and fabric are just right, both companies' online offering of ordering fabric swatches is straight forward enough. Neither brand stands out as a better or worse experience, it’s similar. I order the swatches from both suppliers and wait for them to arrive through the post. The first of which arrives in a bog-standard envelope containing the swatches and a letter detailing the order. Nothing fancy, does a satisfactory job. 

The second order arrives in a box, with my address stamped on the outside. It’s a box of quality, thick and sturdy, with the company’s logo on the cover. I open it and wrapped up in tissue paper with a sticker holding the parcel together are my swatches, neatly laid one on top of the other in perfect squares. Underneath the swatches, I find a brochure about the company and a handy measuring guide. At the bottom of the box is a sachet of hot chocolate and following the instructions on it, I tootle off and make myself a cup before sitting down to read the brochure. The tone of which is warm and casual. I have just had a great experience and I wasn’t even looking for one.



Now, the question is who needed to make an impression on me? Was it the trusted household name or the upstart? You guessed it, the experience belonged to the newer brand looking to get a foothold in the market, but did it succeed in shifting me away from a brand that I have absolute faith in? Well yes, in fact it did just that.

So, what is UX? 

You might argue that my anecdote has more to do with customer experience than user experience but is there a distinguishable difference these days? I would argue that there isn’t. As more businesses rely on digital as their sole customer touchpoint, user experience is intrinsically linked with customer experience and reliable definitions define it as such.

The ISO definition for user experience states that user experience is "a person's perceptions and responses that result from the use or anticipated use of a product, system or service.” It goes on to describe, “user experience is a consequence of brand image, presentation, functionality, system performance, interactive behaviour and assistive capabilities of the interactive system, the user's internal and physical state resulting from prior experiences, attitudes, skills and personality, and the context of use” (1). 

What we can draw from this definition is that the attributes of user experience are broad - indeed there is a lot going on in determining the outcome of the experience. Some of which we have direct influence over us as UX practitioners and others we have no influence in the outcome. What we can surmise is that the attributes of user experience fall roughly into two parts; attributes that have a pragmatic quality, such as learnability, efficiency and ease of use; and attributes that have a hedonic quality such as novelty, inspiration and attractiveness. 

A simple model of UX

To save ourselves from being drawn too much into the detail let’s take a look at a simple model of UX (2). What are the key factors that support user experience? I am going to peel back the layers from the outside in. Through using an example, imagine that you’re visiting a website for the first time…

Visual design

You’ve just landed on the homepage, the first layer of the experience. We know that vision accounts for 80% of impressions we form through our senses and sight is by far our most dominant sense. Our reaction to what something looks like will either have a positive or negative valence and the decision is milliseconds in the making. It is the first hook into getting us to stay where we are and explore further.

Content

The second layer of experience has to do with clarity of content, what does the website say? Is it instantly clear what it’s about, does it make sense? At a glance, skimming the contents of the page, do I understand what’s on offer and does it align to my understanding of why I came to here in the first place? My decision to stay and move on to the next layer is seconds in the making. 

Ease of use

The third layer of user experience is the interactive layer, now I want to find out more by using the website. Every action I have with the system requires mental and physical effort, which adds to an interaction cost. If this cost is high, it causes cognitive fatigue, which I don’t want. Do I need to figure out what to do in the interface instead of instinctively knowing? Can I recognise where to go to and where I am currently? Am I able to complete tasks easily? These interactive tasks take minutes to perform - if the website is easy to use I will be inclined to stay and engage further.

Utility

Which moves us onto the final core layer of user experience. Does this website do the things that I need and want it to do - does it have a purpose? If it does and we’ve successfully journeyed through and bought into all the layers or attributes of UX, then we are surely onto a winner. This is where the true magic happens as users rapidly adopt a system. When these experiential layers work well together they support continual user engagement and that is what we’re aiming for. 

Why we care about UX

User experience affects brand perception. A positive user experience secures brand loyalty and aids the growth of our customer bases, providing higher revenues through increased sales. Understanding the key ingredients which influence user experience helps us to focus our endeavours to provide richer user experiences that increase customer satisfaction.


(1) SOURCE [ISO 9241-210:2010 - Ergonomics of human-system interaction -- Part 210: Human-centred design for interactive systems]
(2) SOURCE [Reference - Christian Rohrer, Nielsen Norman Group, Managing User Experience Strategy] 


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