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Keeping users happy – the importance of User Experience (UX) in modern apps

Have you ever considered what's taken place behind the scenes during the design of your favourite application? One of Waterstons' specialists in this field, Senior Bespoke Consultant Rob Burgess, takes us through the ideal process, defining User Interface Vs User Experience, their importance, and everything you need to know to build an app focused on user happiness.

There are two components critical to any successful company; acquiring customers, and keeping them. The same is true for successful applications. You need to understand both how to get customers using your application, and how to ensure that they continue using it. This requires your users to start happy and stay happy.

The importance of User Experience (UX)

When providing an app for people to use, whether internal or customer facing, we all want happy end users. With this in mind, it's surprising just how often people neglect User Experience design in the development process. I believe this is because User Experience design is still a highly misunderstood and undervalued process by many.

UI vs UX

The key to a lot of the confusion and neglect lies in the misunderstanding of User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX). These two disciplines are often mixed up, lumped together, and generally interchanged in discussions. Although related, we need to know the differences between these fields as both areas have a purpose in the application design process.

UI is 'How it looks'

User Interface design is all about making your app visually appealing. A good UI design will provide you with an attractive, stylish app but it will do very little for the app's usability. In fact, a redesigned UI that does not take into account UX can even be detrimental to day-to-day usability.

Having a good user interface is important when trying to win new customers. It's hard to sell an ugly app, and easy to sell an attractive app. But a stylish UI is not going to keep users. That flashy, shiny new design will quickly wear off if your app is clunky and difficult to use. What good is bringing in lots of users if you can't keep them? That's where UX design comes in.

UX is 'How it works'

In contrast to User Interface design, User Experience design is all about how your app works. A good UX design will ensure your app is easy to use and feels natural for end users. Removing areas of friction and ensuring important processes are front and centre is key. Users should never have to hunt for anything. Tasks should be easy to find when required, and should not get in the way when they are not needed. It should always be clear when an action has been acknowledged by an app. None of this is simple, and there is no single formula that will work in every app.

The UX design process is an important step to ensure your app achieves its greatest potential. Whilst a well-designed UI will attract new customers, a well-designed UX will keep them.

What makes a good UX?

A good UX design can be subjective. After all, you can't please everybody all of the time. Despite this, there are some key concepts we always keep in mind when considering UX design.

  1. Practise first order retrievability. Users should never have to hunt for a desired action.
  2. Be responsive. Your app should give instant feedback to a user when they interact with it.
  3. Include contextual awareness. Your app should present users with information and actions relevant to the current task.
  4. Predict when something is obvious. A system should include default values and suggestions where they aid the user's action.
  5. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Don't reinvent the wheel if there's an established convention.

How can we improve our UX?

When it comes to UX design, there is no magic formula. I can't give you a ‘10 simple tricks to make the perfect app’. Every app is different. You need to understand your system and how people interact with it to provide the best experience. Even so, there are some processes that can help you improve your app's UX design.

Work with users

To come up with a good UX design, you first need to understand how people actually use your app. What are the most common actions people will perform on a certain screen? What do people want to be able to do immediately after launching the app? Are there any friction points that people experience when trying to complete a task? These are all important pieces of information to find out if you want to produce the best possible experience for your users.

The best way to gain this information is to sit down with your users and watch how they use the system. We find this useful at Waterstons and it’s an important step in designing our systems. Unfortunately it's not always possible, especially with a public app. If this is the case, you can instead use analytics services such as Xamarin Insights which allow you to record information about app usage. Possible insights include how people use the app, how long they spend on each screen, and the paths they follow through the app.

By learning more about how people use your app, you can understand what the most important actions are throughout it. This will allow you to better design aspects such as button placement, menus and programme flow. As a result, you can be sure users will have a more seamless experience when interacting with it.

AB testing

Having come up with a new UX design for your app, it is important to conduct some real world testing with end users. The most established method is called AB Testing. This involves running two or more designs side by side for a period of time. Your users are then provided with one of the given designs when accessing the app. For example, for an app with 1000 users, 500 will use design ‘A’ and the other 500, design ‘B’. Once your designs are in the wild, you can gain information from analytics services and direct feedback. These insights allow you to work out the best design option for your app.

It may sound like a lot of work to run a successful AB test but it doesn't have to be thanks to tools and frameworks that aid the testing process. These tools allow you to distribute a single version of your application with different designs shown based on criteria you set. For example, you can say design ‘A’ should go to 75% of users and design ‘B’ should go to 25%. You then build a single app and the framework handles who sees what. This allows you to test your new designs without requiring such a large amount of planning. You can also go on to use these same tools to roll out new designs to a larger user base in a controlled way.

Is UX just for consumer apps?

A widely held opinion is that UX design is only valuable in the consumer world and when developing an enterprise application, the only area considered important is functionality. That is not true. We know that good UX design has huge potential in enterprise systems and delivers many benefits when the time is spent to properly develop it. These benefits span three of the five ways we strive to improve businesses at Waterstons: ‘Raising quality and lowering costs’, ‘Acquiring and retaining customers’, and ‘Reducing risk and increasing security’:

  1. Improved employee satisfaction. Working with end users allows you to produce a system that meets their needs and fits with their work processes, resulting in employees who are much happier and more satisfied. An inefficient system results in workarounds and frustrated employees. Instead, your employees can be free to do their job.
  2. Reduced error rate. A good UX will aid the user with their job; providing defaults, suggestions and validation. This reduces the error rate in an input based system, producing cleaner and more helpful data.
  3. Decreased training costs. Can you imagine implementing a new system without every employee attending multiple training sessions? A good UX design can allow you to do this. Not only will this make your employees happy, it also provides huge cost savings when rolling out a new system. Depending on the size of the user base, a UX design exercise can pay for itself in reduced training costs alone.
  4. Increased efficiency. Through the analysis of process and system flow, efficiency of completing key tasks can greatly improve. This results in less time spent working around the system, and more time put in to productive activities.

So ignore UI and spend on UX?

Having reached this point you may have come to your own conclusion. Perhaps you are thinking you should spend your whole budget on UX design and minimise UI outlay. Unfortunately, the situation isn't always this simple. It is a balancing act, and the balancing point is different for every app.

If you are a start up wanting quick market traction, you may look to spend on UI design at first to gain a large user base. In contrast, when creating an internal application or upgrading an internal system you have a ‘captive market’. In this scenario, it is beneficial to spend more on UX design than UI, as keeping users happy will be more important than attracting new ones.

The key is to always consider the UX of any system you are creating. A bad UX can ruin the best of applications by destroying their usability. In contrast, proper planning and focus can turn a good system into an amazing one by improving efficiency, reducing errors, and increasing retention rates. At the end of the day, it's all about keeping your users happy.

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Hear Andy Bates, Lead Consultant in AEC and Dan Burrows, Executive Transformation Consultant speaking at DCW 2019

17 October 2019 , ExCel London

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