Master User Experience design an interview with .net magazine

Back in November I was approached by Craig Grannell who asked if I’d like to contribute towards the cover article for .net magazine’s December issue. I jumped at the chance and was really pleased to have been given the chance to comment along-side the likes of Leisa Reichelt, Dan Saffer, Andy Budd and Luke Wroblewski.

With .net describing the article as “demystifying the process (UX) behind web design and development’s fastest-growing and potentially most important industry” I thought it would be worth me posting my responses to some of the questions I was asked.  Enjoy!

.net magazine (December 2009, issue 196)

.net magazine (December 2009, issue 196)

What does user experience mean, as far as you’re concerned?

To me user experience is all about the way in which people interact with a product or service and how they feel about that interaction. It’s about providing a great experience that successfully meets the needs of the people who use it. UX design can often be confused with user interface design but its so much more than that, it encompasses the complete experience someone has with a product and the organisation responsible for it, from the initial handshake right through to the happy ending.

Why does user experience matter? What are the benefits?

Taking a user centered approach to design results in a far richer and more rewarding solution when compared to more traditional methods. For users it means increased productivity and success and in turn gives a company greater advantage over their competitors.

The benefits speak for themselves really. Focusing on the user experience leads to increased revenue (or conversions), helps to reduce cost and promotes customer loyalty. If users are more efficient and effective their chances of converting are far higher. A good example of this was a recent redesign Redweb completed. As part of the redesign we looked at their reservation system and carried out usability testing throughout the project. This resulted in an increase in bookings of 123%.

Costs can be reduced both in the development of the product but also in regards to customer service. By carrying out sufficient research early on the whole team, including the client, are clear on what needs to be achieved and it also limits the chances of unexpected requirements cropping up towards the end.

Once deployed if the product is easier to use then customers have less reason to contact you. If the users are successful and therefore happier they become more loyal, and loyalty generally spreads to friends and family which in turn leads to increased revenue.

How do you approach user experience when creating websites and working with clients?

For me the most important aspect of starting any project is to first educate the client to the importance of a user centered approach. Sometimes clients can be overly keen to see something tangible straight away whereas we first need to fully understand the requirements of the business and the needs of the users. There are many research techniques Redweb use such as collaborative workshops with stakeholders or contextual interviews with  users. We like to continue the same level of openness we show early on throughout the project and involve our clients throughout to help them feel as much apart of the decision making process as possible.

Do you make use of process flows, wireframes and other diagrams, and prototypes? If so, how and why?

Project deliverables differ depending on the brief. Ultimately we like to work collaboratively as a team and openly with our clients and produce artefact’s wherever necessary. As a team Redweb focus on creating a functional prototype that we can use as a base of reference which can also be tested directly with end users and seen and played with by the client. Having said that, any prototype always starts with hand-drawn sketches.

Likewise, do you create user journeys and experiences/work with personality persona’s?

In the early stages of a project Redweb focus very heavily on understanding who the users are and how they’re most likely to interact with the system we’re designing. Personas can be a great tool to focus both the team and the client throughout the life-cycle of a project.

How do you test user experience/interaction and information architecture? What should you look for?

There are many ways to test the effectiveness of an information architecture but it’s as much about knowing what to leave out as it is what to leave in. It’s very easy to take on board everything that a user has to say but a lot of the time its not necessarily what they say but what they do that’s important. It’s about looking at the wider view. Its not so much about concentrating on the little details but trying to understand what they mean on a more global scale; is the tone of voice wrong throughout? Does the site poorly address the users mental model?  Their frustrations may not necessarily be with the interface that you’ve designed but the process they’re being made to go through; 20 questions when 4 will do, or highly personal questions that don’t seem relevant to the task.

What can designers do regarding testing if they have a really small budget?

These days there are so many options available to designers working to small budgets, you really are spoilt for choice. There are loads of services to help designers with remote testing, from apps like Websort, Treejack and Survs to iRise and ‘The 5 Second Test’. But I wouldn’t recommend relying purely on remote tools. With the growing popularity of remote testing designers can too easily overlook the benefits of meeting and speaking to users first hand. It doesn’t have to be in the form of lengthy and extensive lab based usability testing, it could be as simple as setting up a laptop in a coffee shop and offering people a free drink if they give you 5 minutes of their time to look over your latest design, it can provide invaluable feedback and if you pick a coffee shop with a rewards scheme and speak to 4 users you’ll have earned yourself a free coffee by the end of it!

What do people get wrong regarding UX in web design? What common mistakes do you see or misunderstandings do you find are rife?

From a designers point of view at times it can be easy to focus too much on the little details and neglect the bigger things about how a user arrives at the site, what task are they looking to complete and how do they go about achieving their goal. It’s always worth asking yourself ‘have I done enough to help them?’

With regards to clients they are becoming far better educated than they previously were but sometimes a little knowledge can be more damaging. They can form an opinion on a particular subject and it can be very challenging to move past it. The ‘3 clicks or less’ issue is a good example of this. Although the rule is a commonly held belief there is no scientific proof to support it. A study conducted in 2003 found there to be no correlation between the number of times users clicked and their success in finding the content they were looking for. Analysis showed that there wasn’t any more likelihood of a user quitting after 3 clicks than after 12.

What do you think the next big development in UX will be?

Usability testing relies on people telling us what they’re thinking either whilst they’re working through a task or explaining their actions in exit interviews. It helps us to understand ‘why’ they acted in certain ways but its not the most effective why as it doesn’t uncover subconscious actions or problems that they may have been too embarrassed to admit to. Eye-tracking can be very effective at uncovering what people are focusing on, the priority in which they look at things and the length of time they concentrate for but again it doesn’t satisfactorily tell us how the users feel about their experience and at what points their emotive responses are strongest. I think the next big steps will be in finding ways to measure this sort of response effectively.

Case study within the .net article

Case study within the .net article

If you made it through this far thank you for taking the time, and well done! I’d strongly recommend reading the full .net magazine article if you can get your hands on it as it’s far more interesting and well worth it. If you have any comments on anything I’ve said please add them as I’m always interested in receiving feedback.

techradar logo smallNote (added 13 January 2010): Craig Grannell’s article has now been added to TechRadar. Read the article “The Web Designer’s guide to User Experience” on TechRadar.


Interview with Rob Farrow from

Last month I wrote about and spread the love with a few beta invites.  I received quite a lot of feedback from people so thought the best way to deal with it was to pose the questions to someone who knows a bit more about it than I do!

robf2Rob Farrow, VP of Marketing and Global Brand Development at, kindly agreed to answer my questions. Rob’s been at for the last 18 months and is responsible for all aspects of the brand, building community and establishing strategies. Before Rob was creative director for a “boutique marketing agency.”

The interview

Paul Seys: There seems to be a fair bit of interest in at the moment, could you just explain very briefly what is so that people who haven’t come across it before kind of know what its about?

Rob Farrow: is a platform that allows you to create your personal social hub on a domain that you own and control. It is about you being able to create, share, connect and collect all the elements that define who you are online. Think of it as your personal portal to “you” on the web.

PS: So where abouts is the team based?

RF: Out team is split between Honolulu Hawaii (HQ) and Solana Beach California.

PS: The growth in social media is far from slowing down, in fact services appear to be starting up almost daily. What are the USPs that help differentiate from the likes of Tumblr for example?

RF: The single most obvious differentiator with over any other service is the domain. We not only provide our owners with a very robust platform we give them their own personal domain (for free) that they own and control. Unlike many of the other social sites out there that make you a subset of their domains and own all the content/contacts within your account, has taken a different approach and put the ownership and control back in the hands of the site owners.

PS: I mention Tumblr as it was the first service that came to mind that appears similar to, do you class the likes of Tumblr and Friendfeed as competitors? If not who do you consider to be your main competition?

RF: We really have no “direct” competitors for since the vision and service offerings are larger than anyone company currently out there. We are always in competition with a variety of services for the attention and loyalties of our owners, this is the driving force behind the desire to create a better product every day. One of the biggest potential “threats” that we see on the horizon is the introduction of new TLD’s into the market place by ICANN sometime late next year. That threat also makes the assumption that of the limited amount of domains released someone will enter the social space with one.

PS: At the moment you’re in beta, how many people do you have using it?

RF: Several thousand.

PS: Whats the response been like so far to the beta release?

RF: So far very positive, our philosophy towards owner rights has been extremely well received. We have had some great input on how we can improve our service offerings, our interface and our descriptions of services.

PS: All the services you’re aggregating, whether its Facebook, Twitter or Flickr all have their own unique audience and more importantly characteristics. What has been the hardest aspect of bringing these together?

RF: The technical challenges and resource demands to integrate them have been the most challenging to date…for specifics our tech team could better help you there.

PS: Recently you released version 1.9 which added lots more functionality including the ability to add ‘Personas’. Usually, from a user experience point of view, with added functionality comes added challenges. What do you think have been the biggest UX challenges you’ve had to face?

RF: The biggest challenges have come in the form of communication more specifically how do we communicate all the features to our owners in a clear and concise manner, engage them and at the same time not bog them down. Its a challenge to determine at what point something becomes intuitive or confusing.

PS: has a very distinctive design. Although a slightly different proposition, services like iGoogle start off as very visually neutral, what was the thinking behind creating such a distinctive design?

RF: We were a different kind of company from the start. We had different values, services and opportunities for our owners… the design was the cumulative process of input from our initial alpha testers and our design team.

PS: Looking at the team there doesn’t appear to be one sole person responsible for the user experience, however you seem to have a strong community helping you. How big a part have UX processes played in the development so far, and what research methods do you employ to help affect change?

RF: So far we have used lots of testing, aggressively engaged our community for their input and have worked with a design team as opposed to a designer. It was important to have a continuity in design extending from marketing and brand experience all the way through the UX.

PS: Apart from the option to purchase you .mp domain are there other plans to monetise

RF: Yes…we have several domain centric and service centric models qued up. NONE will affect the current ownership arrangement (free base service) and NONE involve scraping our owners content or contacts.

PS: Thanks a lot for taking the time out to answer my questions, its really appreciated. Just one last question to finish, what are the long term plans for

RF: Grow and become as socially relevant for our owners so that we can provide them with long lasting, relevant value.

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