What User Experience Really Means

  •    Robert is a design strategist who has authored several renowned books and dozens of articles on User Experience. He is also a columnist and contributing editor at Iron & Air.

Sure, you've probably heard of it. You've probably thought about it while building your own website, and certainly while using others. But when it comes to putting your finger on what's good or bad about a "user experience" things get a little trickier.

A user's experience with your website dictates whether or not they'll come back to use it again. It plots out how they make a purchase, why they should trust you, and whether or not they'll recommend you to a friend. (Word-of-mouth is by far the most powerful form of marketing.)

So let's answer the question.

What does user experience really mean?

Defining UX

​I've worked in the web industry for 16 years. I've started and run user experience (UX) teams. I've written several books and a whole bunch of articles on the subject. I've had hundreds of conversations online, with clients and in conference hallways about what UX really means. I've heard a lot of different answers. But basically, they all come down to this:

User experience is the application of psychology to the design of technology.

UX involves many steps and skills, including:

  • Researching competitors to see where they're doing well (and badly)
  • Translating business objectives (by way of stakeholder interviews and such) into a design
  • Defining a vision for a product
  • Sticking to that vision
  • Making design decisions that directly support the vision
  • Vetting those decisions through testing and data
  • Evaluating the results to see how well the design achieves the goals

UX isn't just wireframing, or prototyping, or graphic design, or usability or UI design. It's actually all of these things, and it's preceded and driven by a well-researched and defined strategy.

User experience is a thorough research and design effort that mitigates risk for businesses, maximizes the odds of earning and retaining customers, and leads to useful and desirable products for the people who use them.

Think of it as a chain: Research drives vision, vision drives strategy, strategy drives design.

Without strategy, success is a fluke. But with strategy, design can flourish, and make your business competitive. Do all of these things well, and apply psychology at every step, and your users will have great experiences.

Judging UX

So how do you know when your UX working? Is opinion alone a good enough metric?

Not so much.

One of the biggest challenges in design is overcoming the urge to put one's own opinions first when it comes to design decisions. It's key to remember that websites and apps are not designed for their owners or their designers. They are designed for customers. What customers think and say and feel and want matters more than anyone's opinion. The biggest measurement of all is the ability of the site or app to do its job of making you money. For a business to succeed, its site has to succeed in the hands of users.

Fortunately, you can measure a site's effectiveness through something called success metrics.

Success metrics are specific numbers you can use to evaluate whether or not a design effort is proving itself effective or not. A few things you can measure, and then improve through design:

  • Conversion rates: This is the percentage of people who become paying customers or complete a desired action (sign up for your newsletter, read a blog article)
  • Retention rates: This is the percentage of people who continue as paying customers or those desired actions over time. This can mean repeat purchases, subscriptions or something else.
  • Form completion rates: This is a measurement of how many people complete a form (shopping cart, contact form, quote request, etc.) versus abandoning it sometime during the process.

You can take these metrics and apply them to your specific website goals. Determining whether or not key aspects of your site or task flow are working well is the difference between guessing and knowing exactly where you're succeeding and failing.

I once helped a big client raise their new registration rate to an unheard-of 25% by consolidating their signup methods and strengthening the language. While the design change was quick (it took half an hour to rework the page and make it available to a percentage of the client's audience for performance comparison), the outcome was completely measurable. They tracked it over several weeks, and the results were available on the site for months afterward as evidence of their efforts to improve the site.

Putting together a list of success metrics and tracking them over time is the clearest way to know if your design is helping or hurting your business.
Always remember: put data before opinion, and you'll get a more effective outcome.

The Impact

It's often said that many online businesses fail. It's a good bet that a large number of those businesses are hindered by ineffective design.

UX—the process of doing all that research and testing and strategizing—helps mitigate that risk. According to a Forbes poll, 42% of startup owners say they failed due to a lack of market need. Good user experience research can prevent that by helping to shed light on what the market really wants.

From there, quality design decisions based on a sound strategy can have an incredible impact. The team over at UIE.com (helmed by renowned design researcher Jared Spool) once made a smart decision about a single button that helped dramatically increase revenue.

The examples go on. The point is that whatever your business or website, understanding and improving user experience gives you the best chance at making it succeed.