science, common sense, or both?

An Abbreviated Tour of User Experience Design

We are very happy and honored to have Tim Hutchinson, Digital Experience Director from Start Design - a leading brand, retail and digital consultancy from London, to write for us and share his expertise.

With more than 20 years of experience with innovation in digital platforms and products, as well as dealing with some of the most prominent global brands, Tim knows a thing or two about what makes user experience design vital when developing digital solutions for clients. 

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Have you ever watched an episode of a not-so-great TV show and said, “I hope this season gets better?” If not, maybe you have had an average meal in popular restaurant and said, “I’ll have to try it again sometime.” Or, maybe there’s an orange-coloured airline you keep booking despite the fact that it’s never on time. 

The point I am making is this: in life, we tend not to give up on things the first time they let us down. Maybe because we cannot afford to, we do not have option to, we are feeling charitable, or we just have low expectations.

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However, when it comes to designing a user experience (UX) – none of that applies.

In UX design, first impressions are make or break. When someone opens your app or your webpage for the first time, everything they encounter needs to be clear, purposeful and engaging. Even a single moment of disorientation or boredom could be all it takes for them to close out or delete. There are no second chances.

If you think people will spend time working through a confusing process, trust me, they won’t – even if your product does something incredible, like fast-forward Monday to Friday. Yes, even great products can be undone by weak UX.

That’s because all of us are pressed for time and spoilt for choice. Don’t like your bank’s mobile app? Here are Monzo and Starling. Don’t like those either? How about AtomRevolut or Pingit? Today, function doesn’t have to make an app unique – the user experience does.

As UX designers, we make digital products easy and intuitive to use. We elevate our products through beautiful, effortless processes to get users on board and stuck in fast. And then, we make sure every experience that comes after is free from friction or frustration to keep them coming back.

There’s a lot of common sense that goes into our thinking. If people don’t like filling in lots of boxes, we use fewer of them. If they hate typing in their username and password, we enable login via pin code or facial recognition. Both are valuable common sense insights. But at the same time, they’re a bit... obvious.

Truly great UX design comes from insights rooted a little deeper down in human behaviour. That’s where science comes in. Or, at least, a scientific approach. We need to understand how a target audience thinks and reacts to new stimuli and new situations. We need to know their motivations and frustrations – those they’re aware of and those they’re not. Basically, on some levels, we need to know them better than they know themselves.

To do that, we look at data and work out the way forward. We also follow and adapt several different methodologies and processes. We may have workshops to rapid-prototype ideas or host discovery sessions that are like brainstorms en masse. We may wireframe screens and create scenarios to test and validate our design approach. Usually, it’s a combination of all the above.  

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It’s part empirical, part common sense and a lot of testing, tinkering, learning, iterating and evolving. And maybe just a little hair pulling too. But when it works, it’s magic.

Take Monzo, for example. Their onboarding is such a delight I would sign up again if I could. And it lives up to the initial experience by making payments easy and providing helpful nudges and notifications throughout.

PayPal does what it says on the box with such simplicity that you feel as if you know how to use it the first time you open the app. Uber fits so seamlessly into life that I can order a car without even thinking about it; it’s just second nature. And not having to stop and pay while fumbling with my bags on the way out – brilliant. Similarly, Deliveroo lets me pay for food with my thumb as I watch my rider glide across a map in real time. Airbnb’s entire experience is so minimal and calming, I feel relaxed before I even lay down in the bed I am paying for.

It’s those very simple features – the ones we don’t even know we want (or sometimes notice) – that make the difference between a great user experience and an okay or bad one. They’re the behind-the-scenes additions that aren’t recognised as ‘big innovative breakthroughs’ simply because they purposely avoid the limelight.

And yet, they remove so much friction and just make our lives a little bit simpler and more enjoyable. Whether we realise it or not, they can be the very reason we are loyal to an app or even a brand. It doesn’t take countless features or multi-layered complexity to get right either. It simply takes a near religious devotion to the user, and design built around their needs – so they can do more in fewer swipes, taps and seconds. Do that, and you’ll create experiences that delight time and time again.

Just don’t expect any second chances.