These days web design is all about the experience. UX design has boomed, constantly pushing the boundaries and elevating our web to new heights. I'm not going to dwell on the subtleties of various definitions of user experience design, but it's safe to say that both interaction designers and visual designers spend most of their time working towards an optimized, user-central experience. And while this all sounds wonderful in theory, there is a darker side to UX design.
the need for ux design
Before the first web bubble burst, simply having a website meant you had a competitive advantage over your peers. People were happy to find your information online and that was that. Over the years this changed to the point where nowadays not having a website (or app, or whatever) puts you in a great disadvantage. It has moved the challenge from simply acquiring an online presence to building on that online presence to distinguish yourself from other competitive businesses in the online environment. Hence the rise of UX.
You need to engage people so they want to visit your website. You have to provide an online experience that puts people at ease, maybe puts them in awe or at least has them leaving your site with a feeling of general contentment. Those are the broader prospects and goals of UX, but somewhere along the way this vision slowly corrupted into something that is vaguely reminiscent of proper UX, but serves a very different need.
u and me
This all sounds very positive for the actual user, but that's not always the case. Even though a lot of effort is put into sculpting a first-class quality experience for your pleasure, it is not necessarily done for your benefit, rather for the benefit of the website/app owner. Sometimes these goals may overlap (make sure you have a happy customer and he will return), but that's more of a welcome side-effect rather than a goal in itself.
Nowadays UX knowledge is often used as a tool to manipulate users into helping the brand/owner to meet his goals. Which is fine if he succeeds, but if these subtle manipulations turn out to be less subtle then anticipated, the online image of a brand of site may actually receive a couple of serious blows. When you as a user suddenly get the feeling you're pulled into a website without any personal benefit, but only for the sake of engaging with a particular brand or site, you start to wonder whether UX isn't just a new tool for marketing minds to trick you into whatever goal they are after. And you might actually be quite close to the truth.
me, the user
Looking at myself, I usually use the web for one of three reasons (and I guess this goes for most people):
- Functionality: a site that offers me something interesting to do. Think social networks, fora, eshops, games, ...
- Information: sites that have info I need right now and want to access as quickly as possible.
- Boredom: sites that give me an opportunity to waste five or ten minutes in between more pressing matters.
And unless I'm really bored, the "experience" of visiting a site is usually some secondary or tertiary priority. If a site offers me a unique functionality then I'll put up with a lot. And if I want information, I don't care about engaging with a website, I want to know what I need to know as quickly as possible and leave just as quickly. Only when I'm bored some elaborate UX nonsense can amuse me enough to persuade me into staying the extra minute.
us, the designers/developers
One of the big(gest) problems in our industry is that we are not your everyday web user. We are often awed by innovation, creativity and/or technical excellence, but most normal users don't really care about that. They want to reach the information or functionalities they are looking for as quickly as possible. People usually don't want to engage with a particular site or brand, nor do they want to invest the time trying to figure our what your brand is all about. They want what they need quickly and they don't want to waste any precious time.
When industry people talk about cool, creative, awesome and inspiring web experiences, they are usually rather tiresome and overly complex constructions that I wouldn't prefer to face when I'm in regular user mode. We have somewhat of an incestuous relationship with the web, which is why it wouldn't hurt to take a couple steps back once in a while, thinking about what we're actually trying to achieve and how this is beneficial to the people visiting our websites.
hands-on: some examples
Here are some nice examples of UX gone wrong (or taken too far). Some sites listed here are actually award-winning sites that received praise throughout our own industry, but look at them from a user perspective and try your best not to get annoyed.
newzealand.com: The idea is cool enough: scroll down to discover the hidden sights of New-Zealand and get a nice little mood-board of what the country has on offer. When I first found the site I scrolled down to see what images would pop up next. What I didn't do was notice the tags plastered over the images and when I finally reached the bottom of the page I lost all interest in what information the site had to offer me besides a badly executed(but innovative and creative) concept.
2. ben the bodyguard
http://benthebodyguard.com: I know this one received a lot of praise, but I never even took the time to figure out what it was exactly about. This site requires such a high level of user engagement that I can hardly fathom anyone getting to the bottom of the page. Once again, the execution is rather sub-par (though that could be said about most animation on the web) but the concept is quite cool and novel from a technical/creative point of view. As a user though, I couldn't care less, simply because it lacks a clear bottom line explaining me why I should put in the effort finding out what it is all about.
20 Things I learned: An article in book-format. It's a technical marvel, but I never got past page 3 or 4. Maybe it provides a nice reading experience on a tablet, but on a normal desktop computer its one of the most horrible reading experiences I've had in quite a while. Skimming information or skipping to the parts that look interesting is made excruciating difficult. It's almost as bad as watching online informational videos.
YouTube's Cosmic Panda: YouTube's redesign beta was branded Cosmic Panda. It took me a lot longer then needed to figure out it was basically a simple redesign with a little added functionality. While I'm actually quite happy with the design and I think it's a great step up from the previous one, the Cosmic Panda branding is crap and requires unnecessary user effort to understand. All I needed was a quick confirmation we were talking redesign, but that was strangely lacking from the intro. Instead, the page talked about better online experiences and pandas.
... everything ...: Apple is the undisputed king of branding and user engagement, which goes a long way to explain why I never really bothered much with it. As a customer I'm expected to be enthusiastic enough about the unwrapping of my hardware to put in a few extra euros, just for the pleasure of getting a nicely designed cardboard box? Choosing Apple is committing quite heavily to one single company and the loops it wants you to jump through. iTunes, Quicktime, uniformly branded software and hardware ... no thanks.
I understand the need for companies to engage and tie customers to their brands, but I would prefer it if they could find a way to do this without wasting people's time. Just face it, most of the time you visit a website as a regular user you couldn't care less about actively engaging with the site's owners or brand. You simply want to do what you came to do as quickly as possible and leave again.
I get a little tired when I find yet another site that asks me to put in some time to "discover" them, or that tries to woe me with some elaborate analogy that bores me even before I've read two single lines of text. Seeking user engagement is cool if you have users that are willing to engage themselves in the first place, but most sites these days take that as a given and try to force-feed it into you.
Don't get me wrong, UX is an extremely valuable concept and an essential part of our job building websites. And in its core incarnation, it's actually very beneficial for the end user, if applied properly. And sure, sometimes a site itself can awe its users, but generally speaking I believe that good UX design cannot be experienced directly. It's something more subtle, something that engages users on a more primal level. Abuse is growing quickly though and we as an industry are partly to blame for that, constantly pushing forward creative and innovative sites that just aren't all that great to use.