Creating amazing user experiences from digital complexity
Cloud computing is driving two significant changes to software development projects in business.
First, companies are collecting larger quantities of data; storing more of what they already know, and connecting intel from the environments in which they operate. And today's web development projects have also become dependent on complex third-party stepping stones.
Meanwhile, over the last decade, our end users have embraced minimalism, expecting a clean “less is more” design, where software features glide gracefully at their fingertips.
So how do we balance the two: and create great user experiences from digital complexity?
Why simplicity matters.
As consumers, we've become used to technology that 'just works' - to steal an oft-repeated mantra from Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.
Jobs' legacy at Apple was to realise how essential simplicity would become as technology moved away from tethered desktop computers to the mobile devices and services that now permeate our lives.
Of course, iPod wasn't the first digital music player to hit the market. Yet, earlier players were - at best - clunky to use, the kind of device that an early adopter would persevere with rather than enjoy using. So when Jobs took to the stage in 2001 to launch the now-iconic iPod, the moment ushered in a new age of expectation around user experience: here was a gadget that could play up to 5,000 songs, which anybody could navigate with a couple of quick scrolls and a click.
“I held it, and 45 seconds later,” said musician Moby in the first iPod promo, “I knew how to use it.”
Customers now expect simplicity whenever they connect with technology. Just think of that ultimate expression of user-focused design, the Google search bar: a simple shortcut to almost all human knowledge. And some hilarious cat videos.
But achieving simplicity is actually complex.
So, the market now dictates that the technologies we engage with daily are easy-to-use, intuitive, and built with the user experience firmly in mind. So far, so good. Except simplicity isn't such a simple thing to achieve, and as the potential of cloud technology grows, the pursuit of creating simple user interfaces has become…well, somewhat complicated.
We're collecting more data than ever before, from health insights on personal devices to mission-critical intel across corporate structures. And these increased volumes of data are hungry for more processing power and more complex algorithms.
Meanwhile, modern web development has also become dependent on third-party stepping stones. Services such as AWS, Google Analytics, or IBM Watson power many of today's online experiences: but as transformative as these solutions may be, they're created for a broad user base - not just your software - which adds further complexity.
Consider the tools, team and approach.
So how do we balance this increased complexity 'under the hood' with consumers' expectations for simple, intuitive user interfaces?
Better user journeys don't come from just hiring great designers or user experience engineers: they start with careful consideration of the tools, team and approaches that will help you build them in the first place.
- Coding culture matters: Developers will often build a system to be as flexible as possible so it can adapt to any possible eventuality. However, in an instinctive effort to ensure the platform or website is future-proof, unnecessary complexity can be baked in. We believe rat that software should always be simple and more rigid. That way, solutions can be built faster and are easier to test and maintain.
- Be clear on your brief: Developers are constantly processing the information we throw at them, which is clearly a great skill to have. But when someone casually suggests some leftfield functionality during a project meeting: a developer may already be racing ahead, thinking about how they could code that into the final solution. It's therefore vital that the brief is clear and understood by all.
- And consider the architecture: Put your data where it's best served and can be accessed quickly: choose a storage provider based on the data, and don't worry about how it will ultimately be consumed. That will make life a lot easier when you try to deliver a speedy and enjoyable user experience.
Building the user experience
Once you've established the fundamentals underpinning your user journeys, you can look at the interface layer itself: crafting the user experiences by which customers engage with you and your product. And it's only by understanding them and what they're looking to achieve at any given point that we can build a really great, really simple user experience. But how?
- Take time figuring out what users are trying to do: Remember the 90s, when software packages and websites presented every possible option on screen, leaving the poor user to work out their route through them all? Today's digital experiences just present the right user journey at the right time. So if you don't spend time understanding what they're trying to do during any given interaction, you risk creating frustrating experiences for users.
- Then narrow their journey down: Just think about buying something on Amazon. Once you've added your products to the basket and hit 'Proceed to checkout,' the interface changes to get you focussed on your final task: clicking 'Buy now.' You can't tab back, and the familiar search bar has gone. There are no distractions to take you away from hitting that bright yellow button. Amazon understands precisely where their customer is on their journey and guides them effortlessly to purchase. Narrowing the journey removes unnecessary decision-making for your user, whilst presenting a crisp, focused and uncluttered interface.
- And consider that different users have different expectations: Remember, not every action has the same meaning for your customers.
Imagine business energy customers downloading their latest invoices from a supplier portal. Some might immediately ring the supplier's billing department with queries, so their software developers might be tempted to preempt that call - and save some costs - by serving up a chat window. But another type of customer might be just downloading them as part of their monthly workflow. All of a sudden, that helpful chat window just became annoying.
The more we know about different users and their intentions, the more we can tailor their experience by offering something that truly fits their needs.
Don't stop evolving the experience.
As we've seen, the pursuit of simplicity in user experience design is itself far from simple, and what works brilliantly today will stop working tomorrow. So we need to review and update user journeys constantly. If we don't evolve our products as customer objectives change, you'll create friction that'll lead to user frustration.
But if you change with them, they'll stay happy for life.