The spotlight at this year's Web Directions South UX conference in Melbourne was on user experience. Andy Budd, a designer and developer at Clearleft in the UK, contributed to the theme of the day with his presentation — "Designing the User Experience Curve".
Budd's rich pool of examples from both the real-world and the Web helped illustrate what constitutes a great user experience and how to create it on the Web.
He told a story of checking into a hotel, to illustrate a perfect experience. He mapped the experience onto a graph, where x axis showed the activity and the y axis as the intensity of the experience. This produced the user experience curve.
The start and the end of an experience are most important and memorable. The experiences of the past are compared to those of the present. We tend to take notice of negative experiences more.
We need to take note of real-life experiences when designing Web experiences. The anticipation of being on a roller-coaster is an example of an exciting experience. Simply because a website is functional and reliable, doesn't necessarily mean it's pleasurable.
During his talk, Budd discussed seven aspects of designing the user experience:
1. First Impressions Count
First impressions are important, as they set the expectations for the rest of the experience. For instance, a study showed that on a first date, 45 per cent of women make up their minds about a man in the first 30 seconds.
The purpose of a hotel doorman is seemingly to carry your bags, but they are actually there to make that first experience pleasant for you. On the other hand, this hasn't proven effective in the retail industry, where half of US shoppers tend to avoid greeters.
Furthermore, people make judgements based on looks. Better looking people receive a lower sentence in murder charges. Budd thinks Apple is skilled at making a good first impression. Unpacking your iPod is like "undressing your girlfriend for the first time".
Computer game makers also excel at designing the first experience. To illustrate his point, Budd showed a recording of the beginner's level in Call of Duty. Instructions are given to players as they are playing, so the learning is incremental. This is much more enjoyable than reading a manual when you are already playing the game.
On the Web, the profile of a newbie on Clearleft's Edenbee.com contains a number of overlays to help the user get started. Similarly, when you join Facebook there are a number of messages to show you what you can do on your profile.
2. Attentive Service
Attentive service enhances the user experience. For instance, while your doorman is hailing a cab for you, you can look after your bags or chat to the person next you.
Another example of this is a waiter automatically refilling your glass. It makes the experience of dining nicer.
3. Personalisation and Customisation
We as individuals like to feel special and there is something special about addressing a person by their name. If at a party someone greets you with your name, you feel good because that person remembered you. Starbucks and Gloria Jeans ask you for your name when you order a coffee. This is a tactic to make you feel special.
In the Web domain, Flickr and MySpace make use of personalisation and customisation. Flickr displays a welcome message on the screen along with the user's name when they sign in. It also allows a high degree of customisation such as, adding colour and personal identity.
MySpace doesn't have an attractive visual design, but it allows teens to demonstrate their personality. That is why it's so successful.
If a user has put in a lot of time into creating their profile and customising their identity, they are not likely to leave the website.
Another example shown was Last.fm, which gives personal recommendations based on user preferences.
4. Attention to Detail
Small delights matter when designing a user experience.
In the past, finding chocolates on your pillow in a hotel room was considered a treat. These days hotels have to provide "lush toiletries" and "plush robes" to differentiate themselves.
In Disneyland even the rubbish bins are themed, since a plain regular bin would "break the magic".
The bottom of an Innocent smoothie carton read "Stop looking at my bottom" brightened up Budd's day.
In the world of the Web, Threadless does this well. If you have an item in your shopping cart that is close to being sold out, you will get notified. It is still up to you whether you want to purchase it or not.
Similarly, when you purchase something from Moo.com you receive a cute confirmation message with a lot of personality. It stands out, because it's not your average confirmation email and it actually makes you want to read it.
Feedback is important for a number of reasons.
It informs the user about what is happening. For instance, when you win on a poker slot machine, it lights up and generates a bing sound.
When you search for a plane ticket on Kayak.com, a bar indicating the status of your search appears. This lets the user know that the search is underway.
Feedback prevents you from wasting time. In the US, a flag pops up on the mailbox indicating you got mail. This way you don't have to make a trip to your mailbox unless you see a flag.
The voice telling you where you are in the phone queue is another example. It is even more useful if it tells you how long you'll have to wait before your call gets answered. You then know what to expect and can decide whether to wait or not.
Feedback shows your status within the system. For instance, some websites show you what percentage of your profile is filled in.
Error messages are an important means of feedback. They should have a friendly tone and be intuitive, so the user knows exactly what the problem is.
Feedback encourages you to return to the website. Facebook's mini-feed gives you a reason to come back by constantly publishing stories about your friends.
6. Make it fun
People like games because they are fun. We like collecting cards, points, photos, even friends...
We like collecting even more if we are getting something in return. For example collecting stamps and receiving a free coffee. Sites like Facebook and Flickr let you collect friends and photos.
People enjoy game-like experiences and points that lead to winning prizes. The danger with assigning points on a website, however, is that it can lead to leaderboards. This could discourage newer users from participating.
Digg removed its "top 10" feature after experiencing the quality of the information was decreasing, as top users would write anything just to stay on top.
7. Create the perfect environment
The environment plays a big part in creating a holistic experience. Virgin Blue has no business class, so to compensate for this it offers a Virgin Lounge to its business customers. The Virgin Lounge creates an amazing experience that's like "being in the future".
Las Vegas has also mastered the art of creating the perfect experience to the extent of offering shopping malls within casinos to friends and relatives of those who are gaming.
Starbucks is another example. The coffee chain's cosy lounges and chairs make the experience of having coffee enjoyable.
The whole point is that we need to look beyond the Web to establish what makes a great user experience.
Usability vs. Visual Design
Following the presentation, Budd also stressed the importance of realising the real effort required for Web projects. He said some organisations still don't understand how much effort needs to go into building a successful website.
"A lot of organisations don't understand the value of the Web. I think people still think things can be done really quickly and really cheaply. That they can be done by the next-door neighbour who is a fourteen-year-old that has a copy of FrontPage. They don't realise that building a holistic, successful Web experience is very much like building a building. It's an architectural job", he said.
We then discussed if there was perhaps a trade-off between usability and visual design. Budd said that this shouldn't be the case if you have the right people working in your team and proper communication.
"If you have a holistic development team, who understands the benefits of both, they're harmonious. The problems happen when you've got your user experience team sitting in one room or one company and your design team in another company or another room and they don't speak to each other," he said.
Budd's final word of advice was to look beyond the Web when designing user experiences.
"Look outside the Web", he said. "It's important to look at other industries that are better at crafting experiences, like hotels, like theme parks and see how much importance they put on things like the attention to detail".