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Designing for User Experience

What is user experience, or UX?  At its most basic, it is how a user experiences all aspects of a given system, from graphics and navigation to physical interaction.  User experience is not something that can be measured numerically, but whether or not a user has a positive experience on a system is vital to whomever owns that system.  The term "user experience" encompasses many concepts, from human-computer interaction (HCI) and whether a brand is delivered successfully to the attractiveness of a site and straight-up fun. 

Simple human-computer interaction is measured in solutions, goals, and achievements.  In contrast, UX takes emotional, aesthetic, pleasure, and experiential factors into consideration.  Let's separate designing into practical and pleasurable.  The former includes all those functions that can be said to be related to the usage and function of the product while the latter relates to how good the user feels inside the system.

Practically speaking, does the product do what it is supposed to do?  Information architecture is the way of structuring and organizing information for products or services, including usability and findability.  Is the information about the product on the system and can the user get it easily?  The user sets out to use a product or service to achieve certain goals and if the product or service fulfills those goals, then the user is likely to be satisfied.  For example, an attorney turns to the Lexis-Nexis website to research Maryland law on trespassing.  If the user obtains this information easily, they will be satisfied.

Usability and accessibility are the cornerstones of the practical side of user experience.  Usability measures how a product is used to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction.  Accessibility describes the ease of reach, use, and understanding as well as overall comprehensibility.  A Lexis-Nexis user probably doesn't want to experience much beyond the phenomenon of getting information they can use quickly and easily.  For this type of product, then, a designer probably wants to focus more on usability and accessibility than on how much pleasure the user derives (though forgetting about the latter is never wise).

Let us turn to the hedonic aspect of designing for user experience.  Ideally, a product permits the user to express themselves and to communicate their identity to others.  Some websites offer this as the primary product - Facebook and Twitter permit a person or organization to design a personal site that advertises what they value.  Users can literally say what they think and feel in real time and build an online identity through "likes" and statements.  Even on websites that do this as a secondary matter, users get pleasure from expressing themselves.

The designer should never underestimate the power of a product or system to evoke feelings or emotions in the user.  Check out the Converse site for an example of a nostalgic feel.  The site looks as sun-faded and classic as the shoes.  Even the script on a site can say something to the user - see the New York Times site, whose typeface successfully conveys solidity and old-fashioned values.  An evocative site can be immensely appealing to the user.

Obviously then, designing for user experience requires that the creator take many factors into account and balance the practical with the hedonic.  He or she must create a layout that is appealing and usable; incorporate all the needs a user of that system has; make sure the interfaces are useful and intuitive; include features and information a user needs; and maintain consistency and effectiveness throughout the system - all while making it a joy to use.

Good designing for user experiences is more than computer science.  Rather, it includes psychology, sociology, graphic design, cognitive science, and more.  Because a designer cannot measure user experience numerically, it is vital to both obtain user information before designing and test for effectiveness after design.  Find out what the typical user will seek from the product and how they want to experience reaching their goal.

After designing, test extensively before going live.  Include as many different types of potential users as possible.  You want to ensure that not only is the user able to obtain the specific thing they seek, but also that they enjoyed the experience of seeking.  Flexibility, technical skill, and imagination are all requirements in designing for user experience.