Design is the merging of aesthetics and purpose, and it has taken some interesting turns in the digital age. Products and people are interacting in completely new ways thanks to the evolution of technology, and new areas of intimacy and privacy are being mapped out as the concept of “user experience” emerges. Driven by customer expectation, digital design is gaining ascendancy in how brands define themselves, and this transition is leading the marketplace into expansive new territory.
In this overview, we’ll look at the meaning of this concept, why it matters in today’s marketplace and where the current trends are headed.
What Is User Experience?
User Experience (UX) design broadly covers the interaction between a user and a product. It focuses on improving usability and accessibility while ensuring a satisfying and rewarding experience. The ultimate goal is a satisfied user, which naturally aligns to promote the goals and objectives of the site owner. In most cases, these goals are connected to building a business and attracting new customers.
A satisfied — or even delighted — user is one who is most likely to convert. User design is the language in which organizations communicate online. Don Norman, the original creator of the phrase “user experience,” is now the director of the Design Lab at University of California at San Diego. He states, “I invented the term because I thought human interface and usability were too narrow. I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with the system including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction and the manual.”
Roots in Industrial Design
The movement for industrial design originated on the heels of mass production in the 1920s. That was when artists from a number of disciplines entered the industrial world, working to make manufactured products reflect artistic sensibilities. The idea was that the aesthetic streamlining then being popularized in the art world would be applicable to technology as well; consumer tools and appliances could be based on design concepts that would help them function more effectively and more appealingly.
The emerging science of ergonomics, which explored the way in which human beings interact with the systems and tools they create, also contributed to user experience. As the digital transformation of society progresses, the application of these principles to shaping our interactions with technology is becoming more defined. New sub-disciplines are springing up under the general heading of User Experience, including Visual Design, Interaction Design, User Interface Design and Information Architecture.
How User Experience Is Constructed
When a website or app is created, it’s always designed for the purpose of reaching out to people. The owner wants to attract subscribers, members, customers or some other type of human interest. Keeping that purpose in mind, together with industry context and resource limits, the UX designer focuses on this prospective audience.
Designers generally go through a discovery phase that involves talking to real users of existing or similar digital products. They become ethnographers, conducting a “contextual inquiry” into how the nuts and bolts of programming can be used to reach the desired cultural outcome.
Holistic “User Flow” Approach
Good UX design follows the natural flow of the user as they move in and out of the process. Here’s a non-digital example: The user flow for a toothbrush includes walking up to the sink beforehand and rinsing one’s mouth afterwards, rather than just using the brush itself.
In digital terms, flow may mean that the user can access a banking app with a minimum of repetitive password typing, or it might mean that a shopping coupon continues to remain available even after the user closes the store app. User flow informs the strategy behind UX design, ensuring that the digital product fits seamlessly within the user’s life. It also maintains high-touch contact between the site owner and their audience, establishing omnichannel connections between them that remain consistent between real and digital worlds.
One key developmental step in building a pleasing digital experience is feedback from actual users of the app or site. No matter how skilled a design team may be, they still seek to check how their digital creation is received by the actual people it’s intended for. One of the regular go-to tools for user experience designers is a group of beta users. Focus groups or paid testers that match the basic demographics of the intended audience are asked to provide feedback about their emotional and logistical reactions to websites. Their movements around the site are recorded, together with a video recording of their questions and responses. Screen-sharing and other technologies examine exactly how people interact with a particular website or app.
This type of testing gives a good sense of whether there are functional steps or aesthetic aspects that interfere with a successful experience, thus placing the user in a primary driving role behind the design. Even after a digital product has been launched, designers will often continue to conduct user research and usability tests to refine the experience.
Why Is User Experience Important?
A New York Times article by Rob Walker identifies the 21st century as a “golden age of design.” This label results partly from the growth of digital products, which lends design a new urgency: Walker notes that the resurgence in user experience stems from a “convergence of technology, creativity and big money.” In 2003, Steve Jobs stated “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
To many of today’s UX architects, design appears to hold hope for not just providing better experiences with products, but also better experiences with life itself. Giving the user an excellent experience (and providing delight through the use or purchase of products) is increasingly becoming a stand-in for the quality of the items or services the business has on offer.
Creating Value, Not Just Adding It
Walker’s article observes a societal change in the general attitude toward design arising out of Silicon Valley culture. Design does more than simply add value. It also creates it. As design is increasingly perceived as being able to generate profit, superior design on its own is attracting interest from venture capitalists. John Maeda, former president of Rhode Island School of Design, has become a partner in venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and designers are increasingly heading up software companies for which they recruit engineers, rather than the other way around. Watchwords in the digital economy now are “delight” and “inspiration.”
Profit Depends on Design
Digital design, therefore, is all about profit. Google co-founder Avinash Kaushik writes, “[If you] move your digital strategy beyond just sucking less, you can rock so much more to achieve the combination of being unique, creating delight in your customers and improving your bottom-line (profit). ” Customers are increasingly sophisticated, and once they’ve experienced a streamlined payment app, for example, or an augmented reality shopping experience where they can see how a pair of glasses or other accessories look before they buy, this becomes the new gold standard.
Kaushik singles out Warby Parker for providing outstanding user experience on its mobile site, coupling his praise with numerous warnings for other less-pleasant customer experiences. He points out that if businesses ignore the new imperative and inflict on mobile customers a page of unreadably tiny print, or if a site makes you register with your personal information before you can even access any part of the site, then users will simply disappear. Clicking over to the competition has never been easier.
Where Is User Experience Headed?
In a look toward the future, Allan Chochinov, head of the Products of Design graduate program at the School of Visual Arts, talks about how design has moved “from the aesthetic, to the strategic, to the participatory.” The engineers and producers of physical objects are hardwiring them with code, while the coders are turning to the production of physical objects. Design decisions lie at the heart of all such fusions, and Walker notes that “style, functionality and engineering are now one.”
UX is at the forefront of several key trends whose roots we can already identify:
“Design Is About Progress.”
These words on the homepage of the School of Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago are full of optimism. Progress, however, only works if everyone can participate. One significant trend in tomorrow’s UX design is “failure mapping,” in the words of UX Magazine.  This concept is based on the expectation that an increasing percentage of the global population will be going online in coming years, including many people with no experience in using digital devices. Thus the “digital empaths” referenced by UX Magazine must bring their awareness to what’s needed to include these people in the expanding online community.
A big buzzword in the past couple years, micro-interactions are going to stay front and center in upcoming design trends. The idea is that users will access rich content through the use of very small granular gestures, which are intuitive enough to become nearly unconscious.
Similar to the end goal of micro-interactions, machine learning seeks to minimize the effort that users must exert. By learning people’s online preferences and habits, smart automation functions to automate a deep level of customization. The eventual vision encompassed in machine learning is the creation of a user environment that is “fluid and graceful,” in the words of UX Designer Joanna Ngai , in which machines become more human and contribute to a working ecosystem of people and objects.
Person Instead of Persona
Whereas marketers have previously attempted to build a simulacrum of their customer or audience demographics, today’s acquisition of individualized data renders this effort obsolete. Growing customization will be pinpointed to actual users, providing them with uniquely personal experiences based on their individual preferences.
It All Comes Back to Human Needs
“Design has fundamentally changed the way we experience the world, from the way we interact with objects to our expectations about how organizations are structured.” As design becomes customer-driven, the customer gains ever more power in the marketplace. Don Norman puts it clearly on his website, “Success in human-centered design requires giving equal weight to user experience, marketing and technology: The result is increased customer satisfaction, coupled with lower costs and rapid time to market. The major barriers to success are not technological: they are social, political and organizational.”