Monday, 31 January 2011

The social and mobile impact on online user experience (UX) development

Social media is a phenomena and I'm sure you don't need me to spew out the stats to remind you of this (I suspect we are all getting bored of hearing about them anyway(?). Mobile phone adoption, and now mobile internet usage and the use of applications in fulfilling functions once exclusively internet based has also grown, gradually at first but much more rapidly over the past 5 years. Rather than talk about these opportunities themselves I'm just going to spend a couple of minutes writing down how I feel they are or should be impacting the user experiences (UX) we develop, and perhaps how we develop them.

A short potted E-history first (my version of it anyway)...

In the early days screen real estate, end-user bandwidth and generally what was possible meant that E-Business professionals had to be become ruthless at prioritising content. This required both 'horizontal & vertical' information architectural challenges to be overcome. Especially as users seemed to be predominantly lazy and or reluctant to spend a long-time waiting for something to load if it was put behind a link.

This apparent immediate laziness coupled with impatience when put in-front of new technology is understandable - the challenge for this sort of technology is after all to make our lives easily easier.

As a result of this there were actually many examples of great user experiences in the early years but in around 2000 things started to improve and the increased adoption of user centred design (UCD) techniques and dramatically improved web analytics started to push the user interface (UI) boundaries and we started to explore smart ways of presenting content, and generally helping users to get to their goals (or more importantly persuade them to get to our goals).

Then the band-width opened up for most people and the screen real-estate we had to play with also increased. This meant we could do even more than before and once again start to push the boundaries even further.

And then it seemed to start to fall-apart or fragment (in my opinion). Lots of 'cool' individual or one-off pieces of interaction could be found on different sites but there were very few completely polished experiences and a lot more usability challenges than ever before. This coupled with the fact that users expectations increased even further as they gained a wider peer group or reference set meant that we were now more often than not further away from delighting the customer than ever before.

Now multi-channel service opportunities have started to be properly realised and expectation has once again grown. And now most businesses really are playing catch-up.

So, social and mobile, how is this impacting UX online?

The widespread use of social media and mobile internet / application usage has now started to shape users needs and expectations even more.

Social media offers users the ability to communicate with a wide range of people efficiently and as a result has exponentially increased consumer power. People are now referring to their network for advice and recommendations as well as providing this service themselves, and for most they are doing this more than ever before. This means the user experiences we create have to tap into this way of consuming information and products, and hopefully we can form a trialogue with our consumers (to truly do this there must be a quid pro quo - another article perhaps). This also means that the interfaces we create need to offer similar interactions and functionality where appropriate. This is because these sites are the grazing ground of the internet and no matter how frequently we get a customer to buy on our website, for example, they will probably still be spending more time in their social media spaces.

The impact of mobile use is slightly different but has had an equal impact on needs and expectations. For a lot of consumers the mobile is a 24/7 always on device and it is also a way of staying connected and using their social media spaces to full effect. They are also increasingly using it to browse and even buy over the internet. All of this means that they are used to interacting with the web in a new and different way.

Given the screen real-estate (even on the largest smart phone screens this is relatively limited) E-Business professionals have had to become even better at prioritising content, but this time even better at breaking down the information and/or interactive stages of a path-to-goal process into optimal & efficient chunks. There are some great examples of very complex processes actually being made even easier than they were on the full website versions. And perhaps this is another benefit of facing the challenge & opportunities the mobile internet offers - we just need to be ruthless and focused sometimes!

How has or should this impact the UX development process?

Firstly, I feel there is a need to understand the usage and impact these things have had on our visitors and customers. Some good old analysis and research would therefore be a good starting point.

We perhaps also need to explore these elements in things like our persona based exploration of the UX. And importantly bring this perspective in to every UX development step.

It is also vital that we explore this in user tests (depth interviews, remote studies, focus groups etc.) where appropriate.

We also perhaps need to practice the idea of designing for mobile usage and social interaction first or at least in a separate work-stream. That way we can challenge the traditional perspective some might have on what makes an optimal user experience but equally we can prove its benefit or optimise it through our user centred design process.

By taking this one step further, or to its logical conclusion, we perhaps have the opportunity to better understand our customers and optimise content, and to a certain degree experiences, for mobile as well as computer based internet use. This will increase our chances of achieving an optimal mobile, social and overarching online UX. Surely that must be an appealing prospect?

Also posted on: The Viewpoint

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