When developing an application, much of the focus tends to be on the features and functionality. This is certainly understandable. After all, the purpose of an application is typically to solve a problem or add said functionality. That said, it is imperative that the user experience also be considered.
What exactly is "user experience?"
When discussing websites or applications, user experience, or “UX”, describes how a user’s interaction with a product (e.g. an application) leaves them with a positive or negative impression. There are a lot of factors that go into UX, including the overall usability, ease of navigation, and level of frustration (hopefully none) involved with using the product.
Taking the user experience into consideration is important for any application, but its importance is compounded when dealing with complex user flows and robust functionality. In addition, new or innovative applications can have a greater learning curve, since users aren’t yet familiar with the interface. A great UX will build an effective tutorial to smooth out the learning curve.
The user experience is more than just the user interface
It’s important not to mistake UX for UI, or “user interface.” While a strong and streamlined UI is an important component of UX, it is by no means all there is to it. UX requires a broad and high-level perspective, and involves several distinct components.
Before a positive user experience, or even a UI for that matter, can be developed, extensive strategic research needs to be conducted. This involves everything from analyzing competitors and potential users to developing an architecture for the application. It also means developing the content for the application before building out the application itself.
Once the content is developed, UX involves oversight of the application prototype, as well as the extensive testing that goes into the finished product. Finally, the individual or team responsible for UX should collaborate directly with the UI team and any other developers involved with the project.
Ultimately, UX is not about the glossy finish on an application, but rather involves a big-picture and user-focused perspective from concept to finished product.
Becoming a UX expert requires lots of experience
It’s easy for someone to think of themselves as a UX expert. After all, we all use applications throughout the day every day. While it’s true that we all use websites and applications, not everyone is a UX expert. As described above, UX requires an understanding of how specific types of users think and act. Becoming a UX expert requires a great deal of time and research on the target users of an application. It requires experience running user testing, knowledge of how people interact with applications, and keeping up to date with industry norms and developments.
UX research through user testing
If a great UX requires research, figuring out the most effective way to collect research data is the next logical step. User testing is widely regarded as one of the most consistently effective methods of researching and improving UX. To conduct user testing, a prototype of the application needs to be provided to a focus group of users. Testers will want to ask the users about many application elements, including the following:
- Utility: Does this application effectively do what it is supposed to do?
- Usability: Is the application easy and straightforward to use?
- Desirability: Does the user feel good when he or she uses the application? Is it a smooth and streamlined experience?
- Positive brand impression: Does the application leave the user with a positive attitude toward the application itself, as well as the company or brand behind it?
User testing can help answer all those questions, and extensive research and iterations are typically needed to reach the ultimate UX.
Building UX from the ground up
It’s important to conduct user testing throughout the development cycle of the application. Since each component of the application builds on the previous step, neglecting to utilize user testing in the preliminary stages can lead to expensive – if not catastrophic – mistakes being discovered further down the road during the development cycle.
How user testing can be applied
When developing a model for user testing, there are several effective methods that can be used. Towards the beginning of the product cycle, user testing can be conducted on core elements of the application. For example, users can be asked whether the theoretical functionality addresses the targeted issue it is meant to solve, and whether there are other elements that should be incorporated as well. Having this information before development of the application itself begins can save thousands of dollars in developer time.
Users can also be asked about smaller elements as well. Learning what users think of the specific layout and nomenclature can help developers perform more efficiently.
Testing the (nearly) finished product
Once the application has a viable prototype, user testing continues to play a critical role. For the first time, users don’t need to pretend they are working with a finished product. For all intents and purposes, they are using one. User feedback at this stage can uncover bugs, inefficiencies, and other issues that should be ironed out before the application is launched. Since users can immerse themselves in the experience, there is a greater opportunity for useful insights to be uncovered.
In addition to testing a prototype, A/B testing can be a powerful way to further streamline the UX and make it as strong as possible. A/B testing allows members of the development team to test out hypotheses in a real-world setting, and can help developers make decisions about how to set up the final product. Even if some features from A/B testing don’t make it to the initial release of the application, they can still be useful when updates to the application are made.
The bottom line is that user testing is one of the most powerful tools application developers have at their disposal. By properly utilizing user testing throughout the development process, the UX of an application can be dramatically more positive than it otherwise would be. It is worth considering hiring an expert to help guide you through this process, as UX design can sink or launch a successful application, and having experienced input can be crucial.