SXSW: Understanding the User Experience

by Sara Toole on March 21, 2012


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Categories : SXSW,web design

One of the great panels that I attended at SXSW last week was about companies that are focused on the user experience as a primary aspect of their business model . . . but it included many useful tips for any business about how to leverage the online user experience for greater success.

Among the numerous things discussed was how to balance the user experience with the need to make money and/or accomplish any particular goals you have for your website or application.  For instance – if you have a Website that provides a service that is funded by advertising dollars – then you obviously need to allocate space for advertising.   The down side of this is that ads are often annoying for users, particularly ads that are inserted into a particular flow, like an ad that appears in the midst of a sign-up process.   However, if you provide a useful service that people love – then not being able to provide this service because your company goes out of business is not an optimal experience, either.  So there is a need to balance the practical need for revenue with the desire to provide the best user experience that you can deliver.

One panelist, Kate Rutter, heads up a user experience firm called Luxr  in the Bay area.  She was very passionate about creating websites and applications that did not compromise the user experience in any way.  Another panelist, Zach Larson, sold his company SideReel recently, and he talked about the number of advertising impressions that were required to make his company profitable.  He said it was annoying to his users to show so many ads, but it was required to make the company profitable.   However, Kate said that she believed there were better ways to deliver user experiences that were not compromises . . . coming up with smarter business models.  I tend to lean toward this philosophy myself, but there is definitely a practicality involved that is just smart business.

Another thing that was discussed is that there is a lot of confusion about the focus areas of ‘UI’, and ‘UX’ – with many people thinking they were the same thing.   They are not the same, however.  The user experience, UX, is about how people perceive the interface to your business or product – whether it is a website, application, or actual product someone can hold in their hands (like a TV remote control, for example.)   The user interface, or UI, is the interface itself – only that.   User experience specialists have a lot of tools at their disposal to analyze people’s responses to interfaces – which often do not follow straightforward logic.   It is often beneficial to have a passion for understanding people and some understanding of human psychology when approaching the discipline of UX, while UI requires design abilities and a good sense of aesthetics.  Steve Jobs happened to be a master in both areas, which is why Apple products are so brilliant.

Additionally, it was widely agreed amongst panelists that what people will tell you about your interface when in the design process (whether it’s your website, mobile website, or Facebook page, etc.) is not often what they actually want to see.  They may say you need an extra button, or that they would like a particular feature, but what they say is often not true or well thought-out.  So you need to follow specific processes when you are designing in terms of who you allow to have feedback, or you could end up with a never ending construction project that gets out of hand.

However, after your website or product launches,  it is very important to listen to ideas that your customers have and look for trends.  Your customers can tell you a lot about what direction you should take your business – and this is a great application for social media for any business.  Ask questions and take polls about your website and products – it’s a great opportunity to accelerate your business!

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