“User experience,” or UX, is pretty self-explanatory in its definition. What is the experience of using a product, service, or piece of technology like for its users? What becomes more difficult to define, especially in the context of the web, is what makes a user experience good or bad. There are hundreds of potential components of a website or app that could contribute to making a user’s experience with the product negative or positive.
In the web industry, every single step in a website’s creation has a hand in how the end users will experience the website or app, including content creation, visual design, coding, and more. With so many factors, it can be tricky to decide where to start in creating an end product that will be easiest and most pleasant for the end users.
How do we balance the needs of our users with our own wants and expectations when we’re creating a new website? Whether you’re a business owner working to understand what your customers want and need or a web professional starting to wrap your mind around how to create a better user experience in your products, we have a few tips to get you started.
Empathize With Your Users
The key to creating a good user experience is essentially combining advanced empathy with your existing industry knowledge. Empathy isn’t frequently touted as an essential business skill, but it is absolutely necessary when it comes to UX. In order to understand what will make an experience good or bad for your users, you need to be able to listen, learn, and put yourself in your users’ shoes from the beginning of a project to the very end.
To start focusing on how your users will interact with your website, it may help to start identifying your own user experience in life as a user. When you use a specific kitchen tool, play a video game, or drive a car, try thinking about how those experiences make you feel. Do you feel frustrated by the experience? Does the experience require a lot of mental energy on your end? Considering your own interactions with the design of products in your everyday life will give you some insight into how your users may feel when interacting with your website or business.
Accessibility and UX
Fortunately, designing a website for accessibility and designing a website with a good user experience go hand in hand. If you are used to doing one or the other, it’s easy to do both. If you have a basic understanding of web accessibility guidelines, a way to start transferring that knowledge to user experience is to consider what accessibility guidelines are actually accomplishing instead of viewing accessibility guidelines as a list of things you’re required to do.
Web content accessibility guidelines were created in the first place out of user needs and a desire to make websites easy to use for everyone, regardless of a user’s limitations. Start by going down a list of basic accessibility requirements and consider how each of those items, when implemented, improve a user’s experience on a website.Understanding why it’s important to have appropriate contrast between text and background or provide descriptive link text gives you a look into how you are making your users’ lives easier when you create an accessible website. It’s also important to understand that making a website accessible for users with physical limitations will make your site easier to operate for all users, not just a select group.
Recognize That User Experience is Contextual
As web professionals, it can be easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking that elements on a website are intuitive to all users when we work with them every day. Knowing your target audience and understanding their goals is key to helping them reach those goals easily. For example, some target audiences may need a very linear journey through a webpage to locate the information they need, while others may reach their goals better by having several different paths to choose from to find the information.
There are countless different factors in deciding which website features are appropriate for a user group, but here are some user group elements to keep in mind as a starting point:
- Comfortability level with technology
- Familiarity with the business
- Economic status
- Education level
- Time available to browse a website
Combine Simplicity and Creativity—Don’t Reinvent the Wheel
When you work with websites all day, it can become easy to get tired of traditional website features, which leads us to start thinking outside of the box when it comes to design. This is a good thing, as design innovation is what keeps pushing the industry forward and improving web design trends over the span of months and years. However, when brainstorming unique websites features and designs, it’s important to put yourself into the shoes of your target audience to determine whether or not your idea is intuitive. What might feel to you like a fresh, unique way to navigate users through a website may result in users feeling lost and frustrated while they try to locate information.
An example of this is the creation of the hamburger menu. You’ve seen them on websites before, typically on mobile devices, but occasionally on desktop versions as well: three small horizontal lines in the upper right- or left-hand corner. By now, it’s obvious to many website users that clicking on that section will open a menu they can use to navigate. However, when designers first started using it on websites, their users did not understand what the “hamburger” icon would do when selected. Instances like this are now resolved in part by web content accessibility guidelines (icons need to be accompanied by explanatory text or an aria label describing what it does), but it remains important to consider how intuitive your design is.
Designing creatively, yet intuitively presents an added challenge to web design, but it has the payoff of creating a website that not only holds users’ attention, but also enables them to accomplish what they need on the website.
Ways to Improve Your Website’s User Experience
Now that we’ve laid the groundwork for understanding your audiences and how they will interact with your website, how do we start incorporating that knowledge into website creation? We have outlined several places to start considering user experience and whether or not you are providing users with the best possible way to reach the information they need. This is only a starting point—once you get used to identifying places your users may have difficulty on your website, it will become easier to find ways to make improvements.
Use Plain Language and Consider Your Audience
Part of making a website accessible and straightforward is creating copy that is easy for users to understand. Writing in plain language does not mean you’re “dumbing down” your message; it means that you’re giving users the information they need in a more efficient way. Most website users prefer to quickly find what they need versus browsing at a leisurely pace, and using plain language allows them to browse quickly if need be.
Many guidelines suggest keeping your website’s content at about a 6th-grade reading level, but metrics like these don’t take actual user groups into account. For example, it wouldn’t be possible to provide resources for law students at a 6th-grade reading level since the language and concepts they’re learning about serve a very specific group of people. While the content on a website geared toward law school students may not technically have a high readability score, it may still be perfectly appropriate for the people who actually need to read it.
Test on Multiple Devices
As a part of the website creation process at Webspec, we test each one of our sites on multiple browsers and screen sizes to ensure the widest range of users can use the sites. Testing on as many different devices and screen sizes as possible highlights places on your website where the user experience changes based on how your users are accessing it.
When testing, tabbing through the site using a keyboard is also a good way to check for accessibility and easy access to content. If there are items that repeat on many pages (like a navigation bar) or bulky items that take a long time to tab through (like an embedded Twitter feed), is there a way for users to skip over these sections if they don’t need them?
Make Icons Easy to Understand
Whether you’re creating custom icons or using stock icons to help indicate meaning on a website, it’s important to think about whether the icons communicate the same message to users as they do to you. If you’re not sure about the clarity of your message, try testing it out by showing the icons to people in the target user group without text to guide them and see if they interpret the icons the same way.
We’ve established that website features on the whole should be intuitive, but navigation is especially important since that is the main way most users will be locating the information they need. Do the titles of the menu items make sense to the intended audience? Is it clear what will happen once a user clicks on a menu item?
At some point, a user may run into an error message somewhere on your website, whether due to a broken link or a form field they left blank. How can we direct users so they can get back on track if they run into an error? The messaging that accompanies errors on your website makes all the difference. Consider creating a custom 404 message that users will see if the page they try to visit doesn’t exist so that they can get to a place where they can find what they need. Adding a link in the message to search or view FAQs may be helpful.
If some fields on a web form require a specific format or must be filled out by a user, leave messaging along with the form that makes that clear so users can avoid receiving an error. If they do receive an error due to skipping a required field or using an invalid format, use clear directions in your error message that explains what they need to do in order to submit the form correctly.
Improving the way you think about user experience on and off the web is an ongoing process. As the web and the world around us change, so do the ways people interact and interpret information. If your website needs user experience help or you’d like us to identify user experience problems, let us know! Our experienced team is happy to help make your website more user-friendly and your business more successful.