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What makes a good UX website?

Websites that take home trophies aren’t always the ones visitors find useful.

They might look wonderful and be a lark to play around in, but websites that take home the trophies for UX design aren’t always the ones visitors find most pleasing. How can brands create amazing UX? By remembering the ‘U’.

In the 2017 Webby awards, Apple was announced as the ‘People’s Voice’ winner of the Best User Experience (UX) category. Boasting a slick website featuring large glossy images, a fluid interface and a distinctively clean look, the brand is often taken as an exemplar of all-round great design. But (putting aside the fact that Apple’s own dogma is ‘think differently’) imitating an archetype is never a good move. If you want to be useful to your audience and unique in the marketplace, it’s time to give up the ‘golden template’ dream.

What makes for good web user experience can’t be found in any ‘Principles of Winning Design’. Sure – intuitive button placement, non-fuzzy visuals, relevant call-to-actions like ‘click for more’ or ‘shop here’, and links that actually work are all important. But when CMOs ask to see the playbook for what makes UX design great, the truth is this: it doesn’t exist. There’s no one-size-fits-all.

Know who you’re building the site for

To build a website that tops the UX charts, the designer has to perform on themselves something of a memory wipe. They’ll erase all lingering beliefs and built-up preconceptions of what people want. And from this self-induced state of pure, willed ignorance, they’ll commence the learning process afresh for their particular audience.

Part psychology, part math, part aesthetics, the design project revolves around framing and defining the issues to solve. Through surveys, testing and research, designers aspire to get inside the headspace of users, building and refining a hypothesis of their pain points and needs. The accumulated data is then mapped onto specific business goals – whether that be increasing leads, sign-ups, sales or getting the user to stay on the site a little bit longer. By aligning the insights of this twofold problem-solving, designers are able to strategically choreograph the customer’s journey through the website – a project aimed at delivering both client and user A-grade satisfaction.

It’s how you position yourself

Good UX hinges on whether a certain design is right for the brand’s positioning in the digital marketplace too. No visitor wants or expects a petfood website to resemble one trading in stocks.

JB Hi Fi’s website isn’t going to be in the running at any beauty contest. It’s bright yellow, jammed with screaming fonts, and crammed with a jumble of products, each shouting it’s discounted price. It appears cheap, brazen.  But there’s a method to this madness. Replicating the jumbled, maze-like store experience, where customers can happily rummage about bargain bins of entertainment, it achieves brand continuity. Far more than some of the gorgeous sites built for competition judges to gaze dewy-eyed at, and random users to play around in once or twice, JB’s is designed with browsing customers’ preferences far closer to heart.

Screen Shot 2017-06-23 at 10.37.26 AM

Back everything up with research

Behind every design decision, there should be a reason. And this reason should be grounded in solid, evidence-based, unequivocal facts – whether they come from qualitative or quantitative research.

Usability studies are the obvious method here for site testing prior to launch. For results to be meaningful though, participants should be truly representative of your target market. This goes beyond getting individuals who suit the demographic profile – test recruits must also be actively searching for an answer to a problem your website can solve. If you have the budget to spare and sci-fi ambitions, neuroscience is even making an inroads into usability testing, where MRIs and electroencephalograms measure visitors’ brain activity and emotional responses. (It’ll probably take a few years before this kind of “what makes my site visitor sweat?” testing makes it to the mainstream though.)

Once your site is live, testing alternatives come in the form of A/B testing, online surveys and heat maps – where you can track which site areas get the most click action or attention from users. There are plenty of tools you can use for this, and you should always have several in your kit bag. Though sometimes painful, the design and marketing teams should pay close attention to unsolicited customer feedback too, whether that’s in the form of sales team calls, email complaints or social media comments.

Thorough testing means that UX won’t hinge upon statements like “Hey I love this colour! Let’s go with the hot pink.” Instead, it’ll come from insights like “Okay, so we’ve established that more customers will respond to a blue CTA over a red CTA. Let’s go with blue.” Or it might establish that you need to work on navigation being more clear and obvious to the user. By backing up everything with research and testing, you can feel secure in your decision-making, and ensure that subjective opinions never get the upper hand.

A caveat: this takes time. Shortcuts will only get you second place (at best).

It’s the little things that count

Another thing worthy of note: a user isn’t going to enjoy going on a website because it was overall, generally ‘great’. Instead, customers tend to get fond feelings over particulars – those little ‘extras’ they didn’t even know they wanted, and maybe won’t even notice, but which make everything easier and more enjoyable. By striking small with your genius – creating one or two uniquely pleasing elements or functions – you can elevate the site’s UX on the whole.

Pandora does it by adding a personal touch to music streaming, inviting artists to introduce their own songs. Country Road (to pick just one of the e-retail thousands) provides a handy post-purchase ‘we know you’ personalisation moment, with a “Well done, you’ve bought a pair of jeans – here’s a  matching shirt, that suits your style.”

The Guardian’s live blogs are another standout in functionality. In 2014, Guardian upgraded this newsfeed-style page, responding to the 24 hour news cycle’s demand for on-the-minute coverage. With a ‘key events’ timeline on the side for users to explore how a story has developed, journalists are now able to supply readers with centralised, rolling information on evolving and breaking news.

It simplifies storytelling, as journalists are no longer forced to write full articles rehashing the situation each time. It simplifies design, as it means the home page isn’t teeming with associated links. And it simplifies the experience for readers – who can now go to just one URL rather than a dozen to quickly apprise themselves of important events.

the guardian timeline

A site isn’t a monolith: it evolves

Even if your traffic is chuffing along like never before, good UX design is never really ‘achieved’. Like fitness, it has to be maintained over time. Sites should be built with enough flexibility to respond and adapt to new audience habits, feedback, growth, opportunities and business goals.

For a site to always answer customer needs, it requires ongoing attention and care. Your savvy designer and marketing team, then, will always be checking in on what’s working and what isn’t, adding new features where they’re called for, and tweaking when the business or audience calls for tweaks.

How do you hack amazing UX design then? Always remember the ‘U’.

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