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UX: Psychology of great design – part 1

Cyber-Duck co-founder and production director Matt Gibson reveals why UX matters. He gives an insight into the practices and techniques needed to create the perfect user experience


The World Wide Web turned 20 in April 2013.  In its first 20 years the web matured from a largely static medium into the rich, collaborative and wonderfully interactive medium we know today.  As such, the interactions and relationships between users and systems have become increasingly complex.

Consequently, web designers need to understand the experience of the website or app they are making.  Designers should consider who is using it, what they need to do and ultimately if the design makes their users’ experience easier or, ideally, more delightful.
Essentially, this is what user experience (often abbreviated to UX) is focused upon: studying how a person reacts or feels when using a product or service and how this experience can be improved.

uxquoteThe term ‘user experience’ was originally coined by Don Norman while he was Vice President of the Advanced Technology Group at Apple:
“I invented the term because I thought human interface and usability were too narrow. I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with the system including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction and the manual.”
In this sense, the concept of user experience is not an especially new one; it could be applied to architecture, industrial or physical product design. Basically, anything that people interact with.

However, in the specific context of the web, the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA) defines the term ‘user experience’ rather neatly:
“User experience design as a discipline is concerned with all the elements that together make up that interface, including layout, visual design, text, brand, sound, and interaction. UE works to coordinate these elements to allow for the best possible interaction by users.”
User experience design is all about the co-ordination of these disciplines from interaction design and information architecture through to visual design, copywriting and branding to ensure the website delivers a better experience for users.


No doubt, everyone has experienced a poor product or service. Software that’s missing an all-important feature you need, websites with navigation that is just plain confusing, or even physical products that don’t work the way you expect them to.
A poor user experience can lead to feelings of confusion, frustration and even anger.  Naturally people will associate such emotions with the product or service that left them feeling that way and that will influence their lasting impression.
“People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Maya Angelou, Poet, actress and civil rights activist
A person’s experience of using a product or service can have a significant impact on how likely they are to use it again. A great example of UX is the $300 million button case study by Jared Spool at User Interface Engineering. Researching the customers of a major eCommerce retailer, they found that by tweaking a button and notice, conversion rates were improved by a whopping 45%.  This equated to an additional $300,000,000 in revenue in only the first year.
For more information, check out


Understanding the value of UX is one thing, but actually designing better and more successful experiences is another entirely.  Here are some tips and techniques for approaching web projects in future. Remember, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach – these techniques won’t be applicable for every project.  Instead, focus on the outcome of what they achieve rather than simply ticking off deliverables.

Stakeholder interviews

Interviewing stakeholders can be a particularly effective technique for understanding the project and requirements from the business perspective.  This typically involves a relatively informal conversation with a diverse cross-section of people from the organisation, from senior management to those on the front-line: everyone affected by the project. By front-loading interviews at the start of the project you will be able to understand:

> Why is it being made?
> Who is it being made for?
> Who are the affected stakeholders?
> What are their goals for the project?
> How does it fit in with wider business objectives?
>Who are the competitors?
> Is there any relevant history or baggage you should be aware of (such as previous attempts at this project)?
> How is success going to be measured?

The trick to getting the most out of interviews is to converse naturally and allow the stakeholder to go off-tangent. Ideally, perform the interviews one-on-one, nothing censors people from telling you what they really think more than having their boss or a colleague sitting next to them. You should allow them to retain anonymity and speak off the record; often the most useful nuggets of information are revealed when a stakeholder can speak their mind without worrying about consequence.
Take the time to understand their involvement in the project and how it affects them, their goals and how they see it fitting in with the wider company objectives.  All of this is important as stakeholder interviews can be a good indicator of an organisation’s culture and will help you to tailor your approach accordingly. A very useful resource for planning effective stakeholder interviews can be found at:

System Evaluation
If there is an existing website or application, this is a good place to start. Researching how the existing website or application performs, including its strengths and weaknesses, will provide valuable insight that can inform your designs.
There are several methods to evaluate a current system, including the following:

Traffic Analysis
There are useful tools such as Google Analytics (, Crazy Egg ( or Click Tale
( that can provide insight into your users and their behaviour. You can review what sort of technology they’re using (are they visiting from mobile devices?), where they’re coming from, and what parts of your website they’re visiting.

Usability review
This involves performing an appraisal of your website or app against a set of tried and tested principles (or heuristics) for usability and accessibility – Jakob Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design are a great starting point:

Competitor analysis
Appraise competitor websites against the same principles, but also note their layout, tone of voice, functionality and visual style. Perhaps they are offering something you aren’t, or you might spy an opportunity to improve on their offering and even differentiate yourself.


Unless you are designing for yourself, chances are you won’t be representing your true audience. Though user research can appear an expensive exercise, not involving users during a design process can prove more costly. The British Design Council says “many of the best designed products and services result from understanding the needs of the people who will use them”.  Here are some ways to recruit users.

Existing users
Speaking to existing users of a website or system is the
best place to start your research. To get these users on board, first speak to those who have a direct line of communication with them.  In some cases they will have built up solid relationships with some key customers and will be happy to introduce you, or may even be able to supply beneficial customer insight.
Alternatively, if you have a customer
database, emailing is an easy way to recruit real users (provided you have their permission to send them emails).  Similarly, putting out a request via social media such as Twitter or Facebook is another cheap and easy method of recruiting.
If those options are out of the question, you could use a tool such as Ethnio ( to encourage users to give their feedback while they are using your website or app.

On location
Visit physical locations where you’ll be likely to find your target audience and source
them directly from there.

Friends and family
Are any of your friends or family representative or part of your audience? If so, they can be a good place to start recruiting and are typically willing participants.

Professional recruiters
Though it comes at a premium (typically £50-100 per participant), a professional recruiting service can be an excellent way to find relevant participants and schedule sessions with them.  A good recruiter will help you to screen participants to match your target audience, as well as ensuring a diverse range of users.Once you’ve found your participants, there are a variety of research techniques you can use.

One-on-one interviews
Speak to your users and listen to them: delve beneath their needs to understand their motivations.

There are many benefits of using surveys to gather information. They provide instant, quantifiable data and it’s also a cheap way to collect feedback from a lot of people quickly.

Focus groups
A challenge of group format interviews is that sometimes one participant can dominate the proceedings. Provide a structured framework for discussion by using tried-and-tested techniques such as brainwriting to allow all participants the opportunity to be heard.

Remote research

When it’s simply not possible to meet users in person, remotely meeting or testing your users can be a viable alternative.

Third party studies
There is wealth of information already out there from the likes of Pew Internet (, Forrester Research ( and  Nielsen-Norman Group ( that can help inform your own research.

Card sorting
A particularly effective technique for collaboratively exploring how people (including stakeholders) categorise and organise subjects into either open or closed (i.e. pre-defined) groups.

Remember that users are not designers. People seldom know what they truly want, so it’s the responsibility of the designer to unearth the true needs of the users to pave the way to real solutions.