User experience design has critical impact

In fall of 2011 I completed the Rutgers University Advanced Technology Extension Masters Certificate Program in User Experience (UX) design. Kudos to Rutgers for taking the lead with this program. Bear with me while I give some brief background on UX design, because I’ll quickly get to why it’s critical to your brand.

What is UX design?

User experience design comprises the “…creation of the architecture and interaction models that affect user experience of a device or system. The scope of the field is directed at affecting ‘all aspects of the user’s interaction with the product: how it is perceived, learned, and used’.” In a digital context, UX design is a set of specialized disciplines aimed at producing a good user experience on a website, smartphone app and other similar interactive products.

These disciplines encompass business analytics, research (contextual inquiry), system design, taxonomy (grouping, categorizing and labeling of information) and information architecture (see video), user interface (UI) design, prototyping, formative testing, development, user acceptance testing (UAT) and usability testing.

UX design is a subset of the growing field of XD – experience design – which, in a marketing context, intends to improve the entire experience with a brand from – online, to in-store, to interaction with products or services, to CRM. If you’re still confused, you’re not alone. This video provides a simple and humorous description.

But it’s not a discipline or process that makes user experience design important from a marketing perspective; it’s the impact on brand equity. Boiled down to its simplest terms:

The essence of UX design is understanding your audience and what they want to do, then helping them do it.

One of the instructors the Rutgers program, after years of trying to explain what he does, finally decided that his 6-year-old said it best, “My daddy makes things work better.” Now that brand marketers and agencies are creating interactive communications (rather than just the passive vehicles we used in the past), UX design is an essential agency competency.

No matter the stakes, good UX design is critical

The importance of user experience design in the world of marketing may not be quite as critical as it is in other realms. Examples where people actually died due to poor UX design include airplanes flying into mountains due to poor navigation design; 911 system delays in which bomb blasts were not foiled in time to save lives; and people receiving lethal doses of medical X-rays because the controls didn’t give the technicians the right feedback. I’m thankful that most of what we do in our daily marketing lives does not have these kinds of ramifications.

But while not in the same order of magnitude as those horrific examples, poor UX design can actually be fatal to your brand. Why? Because a good user experience builds brand equity with every interaction, but a bad one can completely erode that equity on all levels. Worse, it can cause a customer to leave you for a competitor, never to return again. (Agency consultant and visionary Tim Williams was the first to bring to my attention the connection between UX and brand building.)

UX design builds brand equity because it helps your audience find what they want, or do what they want to do.

Isn’t that what you want from a website, a smartphone app, a software tool? When you don’t get it, what’s your reaction? When more and more brand touch points with consumers are made via digital media, marketers better get it right.

Research shows that people have very limited patience when it comes to waiting for what they want online. When obstacles or delays or frustrations get in their way, they don’t doggedly struggle on – they leave and go somewhere else where they can get better results. Every second that passes when a visitor can’t find what they want on your website exponentially increases the likelihood they will leave. And what’s more, research is also showing that with the evolution of the web and digital experiences of all kinds, consumers of digital media and users of digital devices are expecting more speed and better experiences all the time. In other words, the bar is rising.

UXD isn’t standalone: adopt a “users first” outlook across the board

In the best-case scenario, subject matter experts should handle every aspect of UX design. But there is one key takeaway from my Rutgers experience that can and should be implemented by every brand and every agency: ask users what they think, and do it much more often during the ideation stages.

User testing can and should be done as methodically and expertly as possible. But that said, nothing should prevent every brand manager or account executive, every art director or digital producer, from regularly asking users what they think. We are not the target audience! The minute we design something, we can no longer look at it the way a new user will. The solution? Sit users down in front of your sketch pad, your mockup or your on-screen prototype and ask them how they would use it and if it will get them what they need. Don’t lead the witnesses – just put it in front of them and see what they say. Then make changes and do it again. Iterate and test, iterate and test, over and over until users “get it.” Then, and only then, go further into finished design and finally into development.

Of course, once your digital masterpiece is built, you should never have a “set it and forget it” attitude. User testing should start again as soon as a project goes live. Is it delivering on user expectations? How can it be improved? In the words of one of the Rutgers UX design instructors, after hundreds of testing sessions he could safely say that he never failed to learn something important – and often surprising – from user testing. Surprising, because when you create something you will never see it the way an ordinary user does.

UX design is ultimately about ROI

There are so many reasons that UX design makes sense. Not only will the end product build brand equity, but it is also much less expensive to find and fix problems before development than afterthe fact. Good user experience design is just smart business. Your customers will thank you. And so will your CFO.

Business case for UXD

Shout outs to Rutgers instructors

For the small group of you nerds out there who may want to consider attending this program yourselves, you can learn more on the Rutgers UXD page. Here is some background on the main instructors:

Dr. Marilyn Tremaine – she is a pioneer in the field, working in the early years at Xerox PARC where personal computers as we know them were pretty much invented. The first successful commercial GUI product was the Apple Macintosh, which was heavily inspired by (stolen from?) PARC’s work. Marilyn is a brilliant woman – and entertaining! – full of wonderful stories. Jakob Nielson slept in her bed, she will say with a characteristic glint in her eye (…turns out Marilyn wasn’t home at the time, she was just helping out a young colleague who needed a place to stay).

Ronnie Battista – a driving force behind the Rutgers program. A globetrotting UX evangelist, his energy and enthusiasm for UXD are hard to describe in words; you have to experience him.

Lisa Woodley – the third member of the core faculty team, she’s a very articulate creative director who believes it’s not beautiful if it’s not functional.

Dr. Allen Milewski – his resume has a page full of patents and about four pages of conference papers, books and publications. He taught techniques for organizing information that helped me appreciate at a much deeper level the magic performed by our own director of strategic planning,Kent Stones.

Kel Smith – a prolific writer, speaker, global standards expert and all-around champion of making things work for the disabled. Someday soon I’ll tackle a blog post on the topic of usability issues for the visually impaired and other disabled people. I’m a new disciple. I’ll leave you with a little inspiration on how accessibility can change people’s lives.

This post was originally published December 8, 2011 on the Callahan Creek blog.


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