Matt Batten
This is a post by Matt Batten
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User Experience, or the more ubiquitous UX, has become so adopted by marketers that it has moved from buzzword to best practice in only a few years. The term itself has been around since the mid-90s, popularised by software design guru Don Norman when he joined Apple and his job title became the first ever to include ‘user experience’.

Today, the term has coverage far beyond software programming, now being used in discussions about digital platforms, social media marketing, call centre scripts, product design, magazine publishing, shopfitting, brand activations and real-world events. As we have become more focused on reaching and engaging consumers at every possible touchpoint, we have become obsessed with the ‘user experience’.

User Experience is traditionally evaluated on three primary factors: efficiency, effectiveness and satisfaction. Was it easy? Did it work? Was it better?

The advances and immersion of computing, mobile, and social into our everyday lives, have shifted the UX attention from solely human-computer interactions to nearly all other areas of human activity, so that UX now takes human behaviour, usage context and the user’s feelings into consideration.

So why do we seem to get it wrong more often than we get it right?

Given that so much poor UX is all around us in the real world, it seems likely that we don’t really know human behaviour. Or basic physics, sometimes. We’ve spent so long in meetings discussing the ‘user experience’ of a website selling our widget, we haven’t noticed that our widget has terrible UX in the first place.

For example, the energy-saving air conditioning in Edge’s own meeting rooms requires you to press and hold a button until a little LED shines to let you know the AC has kicked in. However, the LED is located right in the middle of the button. Right where your finger is pushing. While it’s amusing to watch people press and release over and over to see if the light has lit yet, each time increasing the length of the press, it’s simply not good product design. Which means poor UX.

This ought to have been obvious to the manufacturer. The usage of the switch is defined, so the outcome can be predicted.

The same goes for whoever decided to write PUSH on a glass door. The human brain is capable of instantly recognising common words even when written backwards, which means 50% of people using these doors will find the door doesn’t budge and their nose slams into the glass.

Human behaviour can be harder to predict as the intended usage gets more complex, but there are still habitual behaviours that are practically guaranteed. Like when queuing. Have you ever noticed how humans instinctively form a line directly out from the person or device for which they’re queuing. And yet, we still design supermarket checkouts, bank tellers, ATMs, post offices, reception desks, that hole-in-the-wall dumpling bar and other expected queue spaces so that the human centipede will block the entrance or some other important space. Perhaps the worst culprit is SydneyTrains, where the ticket machines are placed just so the resulting queue forms an impenetrable human wall across the turnstiles that access the very station you’re buying a ticket for.

The other human factor in the UX of queue design is the speed of service. The snaking maze of ropes makes perfect sense to force many customers into a single queue. But occasionally, in places of mass transit like Sydney Airport’s passport control and taxi stands, someone decides to have that one large snaking queue divide at its head into individual queues. And that’s where they fail.

Each teller operates at a different speed, made more complicated by the varying speeds of the customers and the complexity of their transactions. So, after you’ve crawled around the maze and are finally about to get your cheese, you find yourself in a smaller individual queue being held up by a septuagenarian struggling to count their pennies, and you look across at the other smaller queues and see them flying through. You and your fellow small-queuers have been thwarted by a simple flaw in experience design.

It’s not just human behaviour that can be predicted. Physics is universal. So why would anyone design a supermarket carpark on a sloping piece of land where gravity doesn’t take kindly on wheeled trolleys laden with a week’s worth? I’m looking at you, Dan Murphy’s. Shoppers place their first few bags in the boot and turn to grab the box of Archie Rose only to see their trolley headed for the exit ramp, child still strapped in the seat. Wheeee, daddy!

Or LAX international airport where there’s actually a business-class baggage scanning area on a sloped walkway. Yes, I’ve flown BC, and have encountered this mind-boggling gauntlet run where you must dodge the escaping wheelie bags rolling down toward you, like some real-life Donkey Kong, as you try to make it to the scanner only to have your own bag roll away while you’re busy removing belt, shoes, phone, keys and your dignity.

What about the restaurateur who paid good money for UX on their website to draw you into their fine establishment, but furnished their restaurant with four-legged tables that wobble like my auntie after a couple of gins. Three-legged tables simply cannot wobble. It’s the immutable laws of physics and geometry combined.

Probably the same restaurateur who uses small tables to cram as many customers in as possible, but then insists on large plates, side plates, glasses, a bottle of water, a little vase of jasmine and one of those floating tealights so there’s no room left for the sourdough and you haven’t even started eating yet so you haven’t discovered the poorly designed cutlery that refuses to stay balanced on the edge of your plate as you clink glasses with your date and set your sleeve on fire. Damn tealights.

Drinking straws that are shorter than the average Coke bottle. Maggi meal sauces with a ‘tear here’ corner strategically placed so you also tear off half the instructions on the other side. Sachets of Kikkoman soy that are filled to bursting when you’re wearing a white shirt. A tumble dryer door hinged on the left when the washer door is hinged on the right – and they’re both Bosch!

 

Sure, some of these are insignificant. First-world problems at best. But it highlights the imperfect world in which we live. An imperfect world created by brands.

How can they possibly get UX right when they haven’t yet mastered genuine user experience in the real world. A brand’s fixation on the UX of its marketing efforts should never be a distraction from delivering a good product or service in the first place.

A bad ad can sell a good product, but a good ad can’t sell a bad one.

According to Deloitte research, the most trusted sources of information on products and services are family and friends, customer reviews and independent experts. Not info from the brand. Although we probably didn’t need research to tell us that.

In fact, each of theses sources is seen as up to five times more valuable than info from the brand. Combined, it means consumers are 14 times more likely to find out about your product or service from ANYONE but you. And they’re only asking people who have used it before.

So you better get it right.

As the Deloitte report highlights, “there is a growing gap between consumer expectations of products and services and the ability of businesses to meet them.”

Experience Design (or XD, as the practitioners put it) is the business of designing products, services, environments and customer journeys with a focus on the quality of the UX. Surely, the designer of the glass PUSH sign has seen people walk into the door and most likely even done it themselves (who hasn’t?). The restaurateur must have sat down at a wobbly table and wondered “this needs to be fixed”.

Given the untold millions spent by big brands on auditing the UX of their products and services, why are so many still falling short? All brands, big and small, even your corner store, need to assess their customer experiences and address the issues before they invest in advertising to drive traffic. And continue to do so, year on year, to ensure the experience remains relevant to the user.   

Consumers have always been able to vote with their feet and wallets. The digital age provides those feet and wallets with considerable firepower so it no longer matters how good your marketing efforts are if your product or service is only getting 1 or 2 stars.

I thought it was Bernbach who quipped “I’d rather write a bad ad for a good product than write a good ad for a bad product”, or something like that. But the Googles shed no light on the origin of this adland parable, so I’ll resort to closing with someone who often pops up in my articles:

Milton Hershey said “Give them quality. That’s the best kind of advertising.”