User experience has become very important on the internet, but I predict that it will become even more important over the next year. This is paramount for you as web designers and developers to think about and implement to keep ahead in your field and ensure that you are not left behind and losing clients.
So what is this User Experience subject all about?
The simple answer is how the user actually uses your site and whether it is easy and enjoyable for them enough to return and recommend to others. On a more technical plane, this is to do with HCI(Human-Computer Interaction) or, more specifically HWI (Human-Website Interaction).
But what does this actually mean?
To quote from Wikipedia, UX (User eXperience) is;
a person’s perceptions of the practical aspects such as utility, ease of use and efficiency of the system
Okay, that was a bit heavy, but it just means that the system, or in your case your website, should be quick, easy to use and offer the facilities that they expect from visiting your site. If visitors are looking to buy a book and end up on a site which takes five minutes to load, has hundreds of links and all they can see is information on how to stuff your turkey at Christmas then this is not very good UX.
You may be thinking that this is very subjective, and you would be right. It is! So how can you possibly get it right? You need to be empathetic to your potential visitors. But this is not always easy and can certainly take time to achieve. This is probably made harder by the fact that you do not have any experience of training in UX, right? So how do you get it right? You ask the people who are going to be visiting your site. Asking people for their opinions on your design is a great way to begin to mould your site so that it is user friendly. Also, people are very happy to give their views and appreciate the chance to help out.
The best place to get this kind of feedback is from web designer forums. These are frequented by designers and developers who have qualifications and/or experience in what works and what does not and can offer constructive critisism to aid in your sites development. Obviously not all feedback will be constructive, but you have to just take on all comments and suggestions with a pinch of salt. I’m not saying to go and get comments and then ignore them, but no one person is going to be right. However, those who have been in the web development industry any decent length of time will have a good grasp on what does and does not work and these people will generally be the ones to offer the impartial advice.
Another way to find out about what does and does not work in relation to UX and your website is to look at, and use, other websites. Look at them with bias, not prejudice – what do YOU like about the site? Do YOU find it easy to use? Does everything on the site do what YOU expect it to do? Why am I emphasising on the ‘you’? Because your the one they have designed the website for. This is an excellent way to be empathetic – you are seeing their website from your point of view, a user. You can pick up some excellent tips and ideas by doing this.
Look at the professional websites too. Do not be tempted to copy them exactly, but they have been designed with large budgets and professionals in the web development field. These designs have been proven to work and you could do worse than to take some of your experience of these sites and use them in your own designs. This is not just about the layout and whether it is easy to use. This is also about colour and imagery. The user wants to feel how they expect to feel when they visit your site. Did you notice how I did not say ‘comfortable’ or ‘welcomed’ or any of those warm, fuzzy words? That’s because it is the experience you are after! If you have a website which is about horror films and zombies and want to scare the living daylights out of your visitors then you probably wouldn’t want to design it with pastel colours, nicely curved boxes and fluffy clouds drifting by – unless that’s part of your plan.
This is a very large subject area and there are those that specialise purely in UX and nothing else, but it is becoming more and more important for the designers and developers themselves to have a general understanding too. If you are interested in learning more, then one book that I would recommend to obtain is Designing Interactive Systems: A Comprehensive Guide to HCI and Interaction Design by David Benyon which will give you a good grounding in UX and HCI in both the real world and for websites.
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