Saturday, 28 November 2009

How was it for you? The joy of UX





Google is planning and currently beta testing some design/ layout changes, both on the Home page and the Search Results page to include a new left-hand navigation pane. Google is known for making such changes very rarely and when it does, for researching them very painstakingly. Which raises the question: isn't agonizing about miniscule changes in logos, column width and colours all a bit unnecessary? After all, Google has a strong brand and isn’t it the reliability of its search results that really matters?

Well, in a word, “No”. We’re talking about the User Experience (or UX) here (more specifically web usability) which is just as crucial for Google as for any other website. Indeed, arguably more so, since Google has such a massive volume of traffic. And as Google CEO Eric Schmidt has said “disloyalty is only one click away”. Bing and Yahoo! are ready to welcome anyone who has a sub-optimal experience and fancies a change of search engine. I would argue that the phenomenal success of the Google search engine owes much to how simple it is to use. (Indeed Google has had less success with more complex, less intuitive products: e.g. Google Radio and maybe Google Wave?)

Indeed Google search is not even particularly comprehensive. Michael K Bergman, an American academic and entrepreneur, published a paper on the ‘deep web’ in 2001 that is still regularly quoted. "The deep web is currently 400 to 550 times larger than the commonly defined world wide web," he wrote. "The deep web is the fastest growing category of new information on the internet …internet searches are searching only 0.03% … of the [total web] pages available."

Of course this isn’t the point. Google works. And the company pays a massive amount of attention to UX. Their team of UX experts, headed by Marissa Mayer, Vice President, Search Products & User Experience, goes to great lengths to keep the Google search experience in tune with users' changing wants and needs, including what they see on their screen and how they interact with it. I believe this has played a big part in the Google search engine's rise to dominance. Granted, most people find it gives acceptable results but most of all, it is quick and easy to use. Most searchers find what they want fast i.e. they get a good experience. Google wisely adjusts the user interface with great care and only after careful consideration.

The world-renowned UX Guru Jakob Nielsen has said “People are on the Web not to enjoy your Web design, but to get something done.” Not surprisingly, he has been strongly criticized by the design community for downplaying the importance of aesthetics, particularly in situations where the creator of the web content is seeking to persuade, influence or entertain rather than purely facilitating. Few would disagree with the argument that different factors come into play when one considers the optimum UX in browsing a particular area of an online store to find suitable gift ideas, compared with what is required at the checkout. Similarly compare an online photo gallery with an online banking site. The need, of course, is to understand the user and their requirements at the time they are using each part of the site; this is UX (web usability) research and design: a fascinating meeting of technology and human psychology.

UX has become big business and rightly so. There are now companies who specialize in 'eye tracking' to optimize website usability. To ensure a site is accessible and easy to use, they look at the site through the user’s eyes - literally. Under laboratory conditions, site owners can observe directly where the user looks for information, what elements are missed, and where the user is confused. 'Point-of-gaze' metrics combined with 'measures of mental effort' can highlight key usability areas that need attention. We can study how users click and where they look and in what sequence. Granted, we don't know exactly what they're thinking and feeling (yet) but it's a good start in our mission to deliver the best possible UX.

Site owners are continuously competing against distractions (including ads and other websites) in their attempts to engage and hold the attention of the user. The slightest irritation or unwelcome surprise can produce frustration and cause the user to click away/ leave the site. Improved web design has raised the bar compared with the ‘brochure sites’ of 10 years ago. Today’s users expect good usability. They are not, in general, fascinated and impressed by website design or Flash animation. They are demanding and impatient. Thus sites should be designed and tested for speed of loading and ease of navigation on equipment and with connection speeds typically experienced by the site’s core user group (a factor which the design and build agency, with its high-end machines, has been known to neglect!).

Given ‘Content is King’, one can commit regicide by neglecting UX considerations. Yet even in these days of widespread broadband, the user doesn’t always experience a freely flowing interaction. There are far too many sites with good content that are unnecessarily frustrating to use. And too many major companies that (re)launch websites without adequate testing. Why would they do that?

Smart companies understand the importance of UX and devote appropriate time and resources to optimizing their user’s interaction (a) with their site and (b) looking at the bigger picture (including all touchpoints) with their brand. Apple certainly knows a thing or two about Total User Experience design, as demonstrated by the attention it pays to packaging, materials and colours as key elements of product design.

I'm not sure exactly when we’ll all get to use the new Google interface. But when we do, I'm sure it will be a good experience.

6 comments:

Tony King said...

As usual,very little to disagree with here, Mike. I am surprised time and time again at the lack of basic digital knowledge of many of the FTSE250 brands that we speak to - whether that be search, social media monitoring or indeed UX. Given that, it's no surprise that the SME market often fail to invest appropriately in UX as they "Don't have the budget" - try convincing them that without it they are wasting money on their site!
Where Google is concerned, I think Bing are really taking the battle to them - I now use Bing if I am looking for facts rather than generic search info or something to buy. And if Google don't get their algorithms sorted out soon, they'll lose some of that traffic too - people will soon get bored of US and Australian results for searches in the UK (last night Google 'thought' I would be likely to consider buying a set of football goals from Australia - postage probably prohibitive)!
Back to UX in general; I think an organisation needs a strong Head of Digital with a good general understanding to ensure that creative and UX design work together to deliver the commercial aims of the online proposition. After all, a website is no longer a vanity purchase anymore - it's there to provide, directly or indirectly, an income stream.

Julian Clayton said...

Good post but only scratches the surface of the main issue:how can you reduce an emotional user encounter with your brand to series of mechanical operations: "read this, click here, scroll down, credit card here" etc?

For years advertising art directors and typographers have understood the need to catch the reader's eye, to charm, intrigue or otherwise interest them and then tell them something which keeps them looking and reading. (I think they call this 'engagement' these days).These were only ever general principles; part of the challenge was the unpredictability of the audience. Nothing has changed; we just sometimes use computers to access content these days. So nobody should try to tell me UX (or UI Design or whatever) is an exact science. At best it can help you avoid stupid mistakes (which admittedly many websites still seem to be making).

Mike Berry said...

Thanks for the comments.

Julian: I don't think anyone is trying to say that UX (or UE as it's sometimes called) is a 100% precise science. There's still room for creative flair and indeed it's essential in the increasingly cluttered world (online and offline) in which we all operate. What UX experts can add is an understanding of how people behave online, what they expect to see and how they look for what they want. This understanding must be helpful to those attempting to engage, inform and persuade them.

Fee said...

You're right that Google search is simple, but then so are the searches for Ask, Yahoo and Bing. The big difference for me is the quality of the results. I get far more dross in the results from other search engines: pages which aren't really pages, but are instead pages with a lot of links, many of them dodgy.

Ask ran a campaign which indicated that they thought their results were as good as or better than Googles, and that they regarded the success of Google as a matter of PR and pulling power rather than quality of service. They're just plain wrong... I tested it out to see, and the results I got with Google were far superior. Less of the dross, more relevant and usable links.

Google pays attention to the things which need attention, and it does it thoroughly and well. There are no shortcuts, and the whinging by other search engines that they have created some sort of monopoly by virtue of their size alone is rubbish. The quality of the results keeps people loyal to the brand.

Fee said...

Oh and @Tony King... you need that button "pages from the UK". A search on football goals with that clicked on seemed to bring only UK sites?

gcrouchback said...

For the UX on the Search Engine - Bing will win - with a couple of decades of Windows and Office behind them MS understand the usibility thing better than anyone. Bing UX is in the same league as Google now - and it will get better.
But why does this (Search UX) matter ? 'Real companies' selling real stuff have not all learned these lessons - we all suffer from it, and the slowest of them will die of ignorance.