User experience (UX) is a critical part of the success or failure of a product on the market, but not everyone really understand what UX means. UX is often confused with usability, which means how easy a product is to use and while UX as a discipline did begin with usability, it has far outgrown is and expanded to encompass more than just usability.
In order to ensure a product’s success on the market, it’s critical that you pay attention to all the facets of the user experience, not just usability alone.
According to Peter Morville, a pioneer in the field of user experience who has written multiple best-sellers on it, there are 7 main factors which describe user experience:
Let’s go ahead and take a look at each of these factors and see what they mean for the overall user experience.
What point is there in bringing a product to the market if it isn’t useful? If it serves no purpose, it is unlikely to compete for people’s attention in a market filled with useful products.
Remember that usefulness, however, is “in the eye of the beholder,” and something can be useful even if they deliver simple and non-practical benefits such as being fun or aesthetically appealing.
As such, even a video game or a painting can be considered useful even if they don’t allow a user to accomplish any meaningful goals.
Usability refers to a user’s ability to effectively and efficiently complete their goal with a product. A video game which requires using three control pads will likely be unusable as people only have two hands, for example.
A product can still be successful even with usability issues, but this is much less likely to happen. Poor usability is typically associated with a product’s first iteration. An example of this would be MP3 players which lost a lot of market share to the iPod when it first came out because of its improved usability. It certainly wasn’t among the first MP3 players to come to market, but it was the first that put a strong focus on usability.
Findability refers to the notion that a product should be easy to find. In this age of digital and information products, the content within the product should also be easy to find. Simply put, if you can’t find a product, you won’t buy it.
If you had a newspaper and all the articles within it were randomly allocated space instead of being organized into sections such as Business, Entertainment, Job Ads, etc. you would likely find reading the newspaper a confusing and frustrating experience. Findability is crucial to a good user experience with many products.
With the number of alternatives available these days for any product, users are unlikely to give you a second chance if you betray their trust.
Credibility refers to your users’ ability to trust the product that you are offering them. It’s not just about trusting that it can do the job you say it can, but also that it will last for a reasonable amount of time and that the information provided with the product is accurate and relevant.
It is almost impossible to deliver a good user experience if your users think that you are lying or that you don’t know what you are talking about and they will take their business elsewhere.
Both Renault and Porsche make cars. They are both useful, usable, findable, and credible, but Porsche cars are significantly more desirable than Renaults. That doesn’t mean that Renault cars aren’t desirable, as they are very popular and many people enjoy them, but given a choice between a free Porsche and a free Renault, the great majority of people will likely pick the Porsche.
In design, desirability is conveyed through branding, identity, image, aesthetics, and emotional design. The more desirable a particular product is, the more likely it is that the users who have them will brag to others about them and create even more desire in other users.
Unfortunately, accessibility is often overlooked when designing user experiences. Accessibility refers to offering a user experience which is accessible by users with a full range of abilities as well as those with a limited range. This includes people who are impaired in one way or another, from those with hearing loss and impaired vision to people who are motion impaired or learning impaired.
Companies often see designing for accessibility as a waste of money. This is because they see people with disabilities as making up only a very small segment of the population, so they prefer not to invest too much time and resources into catering for them.
In reality, however, the United States has at least 19% of its people suffering from some type of disability according to census data, and the percentage is likely higher in countries which are less developed.
That means that 1 in 5 people who may be in the market for your product may not be able to use it properly if it is not designed with accessibility in mind.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that when you design a product for accessibility, you’re not just making it easier to use for those with disabilities, but also for everyone else. This is just to illustrate how important accessibility is and why it is more worthwhile investing in it than you might first think.
Finally, accessibility is also a legal requirement in many jurisdictions, including in the European Union, and not designing for accessibility may result in fines.
Finally, your product must deliver value to both your business and the users you have created it for. Without any value, your product’s initial success will likely be undermined.
As a designer, you should keep in mind that value is one of the key influencers of people’s purchase decisions. A $10 product which solves a $100 problem will likely succeed, whereas a product that costs $100 and solves a $10 likely won’t.
In 1994, Jakob Nielsen described the 10 general principles for interaction design. Since they are not specific usability guidelines but instead broad rules of thumb, they are called “heuristics” and are based on many years of experience with usability engineering.
While it has been over 26 years, these principles are still as relevant as ever. Development teams can use them to save a lot of time in early usability testing and instead focus on more complex design challenges. These principles are worth using as a checklist when a new product or feature is being designed.
Now that we’ve looked over Peter Morville’s recommendations, let’s go ahead and take a quick look at Jakob Nielsen’s heuristics.
1. Visibility of system status
The first heuristic is essentially about communication and transparency. Any system should always keep users informed of what is happening, giving them appropriate feedback within a reasonable amount of time.
This feedback can be something as simple as changing a button’s color once it has been clicked, or a progress indicator when the requested action is taking longer. Users should always be aware of what is going on and whether their interactions were successful or not within a reasonable amount of time.
2. Match between system and the real world
The second heuristic is again about communication, but this time we are talking about the type of language used to communicate with users. Systems should speak in a way that is easily understood by the user, using words and concepts familiar to them instead of system-oriented terms.
When users approach a new system, they already have a mental model in mind and make presumptions on how this new system could work based on their experience with other systems.
An example of matching a system with the real world is skeuomorphism design, which recreates the details of real-world objects inside the software. This type of design was very popular at the beginning of the smartphone era as they allowed users to better understand how to use their devices.
3. User control and freedom
This essentially boils down to providing users a quick method of reversing their actions – for example, undo and redo buttons.
Users will often interact with systems in a hurry or simply not fully concentrated, which will sometimes lead to mistakes like unintended clicks, accidental deletions, and so on. In these cases, they need to have a clearly marked method of fixing their problem, and these can be as simple as a back arrow, the “undo” button, or a trash folder where they can restore their deleted files from.
4. Consistency and standards
Heuristic #4 is all about following platform conventions and using words or actions which align with users’ expectations.
Take for example the copy-paste functionality which always means and does the same thing, so users are never confused when a new system uses this terminology. If a system uses well established words, visuals, or actions for new concepts, users are likely to get confused and this translates into a bad user experience.
5. Error prevention
It is always good practice to clearly and actionably communicate errors to your users, but what’s even better is preventing them from making errors in the first place.
Before we talk about how prevention can work, we need to talk about the two types of errors that a user can make:
- slips – these are basically simple mistakes that users unknowingly make, such as typos
- mistakes – these are conscious errors users make when their goals are inappropriate for the problem at hand, such as trying to fix a problem by taking steps that are not relevant to the solution for that problem
Slips typically occur when users are already familiar with their goal and accidentally perform the wrong actions. This is mostly because we tend to pay less attention to tasks which are well practiced and very familiar to us. Strategies for preventing slips are typically focused on gentle guidance and assistance, as well as encouraging users to check for errors.
A few ways to prevent slips include:
- helpful constraints – limiting users’ input options (e.g. when booking a flight and being unable to pick a return flight date before their departure date)
- suggestions – e.g. search suggestions when typing a product name, preventing potential typos
- good defaults – especially useful when users need to perform repetitive actions or where precision is important (e.g. setting a reminder and having a choice between a few predefined options such as one hour, the following day, etc.)
- forgiving formatting – certain tasks require precise information, but you shouldn’t force people to format that information in a certain way (e.g. inputting phone numbers and accepting numbers written with or without parentheses and hyphens as they are commonly written in the US for readability purposes)
6. Recognition rather than recall
This heuristic is about minimizing users’ memory loads by not forcing them to remember previous choices or actions.
Memory retrieval works in two ways:
- recognition – when you easily recognize a familiar person or object with no effort on your part
- recall – when you have to access rarely used information, thus making more of a mental effort
A good example is the user interface, which doesn’t require users to recall options or information frequently, instead providing everything they need within the interface. Instead of recalling a feature from memory and writing it down into a sort of terminal interface, users can more easily scan through icons or text menus to find what they are looking for.
7. Flexibility and efficiency of use
User interface design often focuses on first-time users and making their experience pleasant while providing a gradual learning curve. When talking about experienced users, accelerators come into play.
An accelerator is a UI feature which can speed up certain interactions or processes. They are often called shortcuts and provide experienced users alternate methods of completing actions which are faster but sometimes a bit more demanding because of the memory load or complex gestures required to take advantage of those shortcuts.
A good example of accelerators are keyboard shortcuts in your computer’s operating system. They allow you to accomplish actions faster but require you to memorize several of these shortcuts, which typically proves difficult for first-time users.
8. Aesthetic and minimalist design
The point of minimalism is to reduce a subject’s description to only its necessary elements. While it has applications in many fields, in our case it serves to allow users quick and easy access to information.
Dialogues, for example, should not contain irrelevant information, as any extra bit of information competes with the relevant bits, making them less visible.
Visually, the use of whitespace helps increase legibility, highlighting calls to action, and overall creating a pleasant and spaced-out aesthetic.
9. Help your users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
Errors are frustrating enough on their own, but they are made even more frustrating by poor error experience design. Error messages should be clear and precise, informing the user about what went wrong and perhaps even offering solutions. An error message that just says “the operation could not be completed” is a perfect example of very poor error experience design, where the error message is neither clear nor useful to users.
Error messages should be written in plain language that is understandable by humans – no error codes, they should clearly explain what went wrong, and inform the user of possible next steps to accomplish their intended goal.
10. Help and documentation
While you should strive to create a system that is perfectly usable without the need for documentation, do keep in mind that every user has a different skill and knowledge level. As such, guides should be provided for those that may need a helping hand.
Documentation should be easily accessible, well structured, easy to search through, minimalist, and written for humans so that it is easy to understand and can help users with concrete steps toward their goals.
Keep in mind that a product’s success depends on a lot more than just utility and usability.
A product is very likely to succeed on the market if it is useful, usable, findable, credible, desirable, accessible, and valuable. Each characteristic has great potential so try not to ignore any one of them when designing your product. Along with Nielsen’s heuristics, they serve as extremely useful guidelines for designing good user experiences for your products.