User Experience Design is All Around Us

Interactive experiences should feel easy and intuitive, whether they happen out in the world or in the digital space.

Here at Gard Communications, we notice that new website clients’ most pressing questions are often about messaging, SEO, social media integration, and so on. But before a website can be successful in those areas, it must be built on sound user experience design (UX), which works at a subconscious level and has a powerful effect on visitors’ experience, perceptions, judgments, and behaviors.

So why should we care about UX design? Because if something is difficult or unpleasant to use, it won’t get used as much. Or it won’t get used optimally.

UX design isn’t limited to digital experiences, it’s all around us in the physical world. Bad UX design makes us stop and think about activities that should be transparent and intuitive. This adds to our cognitive load, and can lead to errors and frustration.

Closeup of ventilation dials on a car's dashboard.
Car dashboard ventilation dials for controlling air direction and intensity.

The confusing car dashboard

UX design can be problematic when it fails to correspond to pre-established mental models. For example, in these automobile ventilation controls, we must dial the left control downwards to aim air higher up in the car, and dial it upwards to aim air at our feet. This is opposite of the way we understand the body, and forces us to look at the controls while operating them – which is not ideal while driving.

Closeup of burner control dials on a stovetop.
Dials on a stovetop for selecting burners and controlling temperature.

The potentially dangerous stovetop

Consider this stovetop dial design. Which burner is on and which burner is off? You can figure it out, but due to the vague association between the dial design and our concept of “arrow/pointer” it takes a bit of double-checking, possibly including holding your hand over the burners to be sure.

Closeup of elevator buttons.
Buttons in a hospital elevator.

The discombobulating elevator

In this elevator, there are few enough floors that the buttons could be displayed in a single column, to mimic the stacking of the floors in the building. Placing the buttons side-by-side disrupts our concept of spatial hierarchy and forces us to double-check which floor we choose. This adds an unnecessary moment of doubt to the activity.

You may think, so what? If someone can’t figure out this elevator, they probably shouldn’t go out without a chaperone. But that’s not the point. Of course we can figure this stuff out, but our busy, modern lifestyle already bombards us with distractions and overloads our short-term memory. Over-thinking micro-actions contributes to our cognitive load. Add up a day’s worth of interacting with clunky design, and you are more tired than you otherwise would be.

The same principle applies to websites, and here at Gard Communications we consider this closely when we design or redesign a client’s site. Every unintuitive aspect of a website adds to the visitor’s cognitive load. As they navigate the site they’re being forced to think about it – mostly at a subconscious level – in ways that sap their energy and enthusiasm. (Or, if the site is really bad, ways that make them irritated, or worse.) And that’s not good for them and it’s not good for the company or organization. Users are less likely to make favorable, generous decisions on a clunky website, such as signing up for a newsletter, donating to an organization, registering for an event, forwarding information to a friend, and so on. They’ll return less often, and in situations where they’re forced to return (such as a health care portal) they’ll consider it a chore.

The most important principle of UX design is, Don’t make your users think. With a very few exceptions, websites or other interactive situations should not make users think. Other than in game design, in which you’re intentionally inviting users to puzzle over what they’re doing, interactive experiences should feel easy and intuitive. The examples above force users to think, and in moments of inattention, they may use the products incorrectly.

When we work with clients on their branding, messaging, aesthetics, social media, fundraising, a database, or all of the above, we start with improving the UX design. Every aspect of a website is supported greatly by good UX design, and every aspect is undermined by bad UX design.

As a discipline, UX is a blend of cultural anthropology and information design that keeps the user – our clients’ audiences – top-of-mind during the lifecycle of a web or interactive project. Website UX design principles are well documented and supported by research and recent findings in neurology and the psychology of perception.

This is the first in a series of posts focusing on UX design. In subsequent posts I’ll explore the role of the triune brain in how we experience and respond to websites, and how UX designers act as “relationship engineers.”