UX for the rest of us: Building a user-friendly website

As advertisers, we’re in the business of knowing people. That’s been true since this industry began – and in recent years we’ve seen a new angle: user experience (UX) design.

Although UX may seem like some complex, inaccessible concept, it’s really exactly what it says it is: the experience of people using things. UX is much broader than you might think. It’s a fairly modern notion that UX applies solely to the digital world – in fact, the principles of user experience have been applied to real-world situations for a very long time.

The concepts we lean on to build a user-friendly website are some of the same ones used in architecture, city planning, product design and more.

Take, for example, the concept of affordances. Put simply, it’s the idea that everything should be designed with obvious cues on how it’s used – even if the user has never interacted with it before. At M, this is cornerstone to every one of our digital designs. From websites to interactive retail experiences, we make sure every digital touchpoint is as intuitive as a self-check-out line or public restroom.

User experience starts at the first impression. You walk up to the door to a bank, let’s say, and pull at a door handle that actually needs to be pushed. This small frustration might nudge you into a bad mood. Then you enter that bank, and it’s unclear which window serves what purpose, and you end up waiting in the wrong line. Soon, your opinion of the bank begins to sour. Your trip went from a quick errand to the day’s low point – or what UX experts call “death by a thousand cuts.”

The same principles apply to a website. When a user first arrives, greet them with a clear and welcoming message that establishes where they are and what this page is all about. If they perform an action, provide feedback like hover states and loading icons so that they know the site is active and responsive.

Attention spans on the web are low – if your site’s first impression is unclear, you don’t stand a chance.

Once a user lands on a page, they’re on a mission. They know what they need from this experience, and that’s when flow comes into play. The organization of information is called “content architecture,” and it’s where we really examine the user’s journey beyond that initial reaction, considering every click and scroll. UX designers like to think of a user following the “scent of information” – seeking out content where it makes sense to be, based on their past experiences and cultural norms. Even in a stranger’s kitchen, you know you’re likely to find food in the fridge, plates in the cabinets and garbage in the trash can by leaning on your existing “mental models” – expectations you have, based on past experiences.

So too should a website’s organization be largely intuitive: click the logo to be returned to the homepage, click “Learn More” for details pertaining to the product shown, find contact information in the page’s footer, etc. Finding what you need from a website should be as straightforward as making a sandwich at a friend’s house.

Similarly, it’s important to be clear and direct with a user. Picture an intersection you’ve never been to before. As you come up to the stoplight, there are three lanes, but none are marked. Across the intersection, the street narrows to two lanes. You just want to go straight, but can’t tell which lane is a turn lane or who has the right of way, or even which light applies to you.

This entire intersection and all the factors playing into it – including standard driving conventions for the part of the world you’re in – all come together to create a user experience. That moment of confusion could have been mitigated by some simple signage or by arrows painted on the lanes themselves. As a driver, you crave clear directions for safe and orderly traffic.

On the web, the same challenges exist. As advertisers we often crave fun, clever copy – but creativity can’t sacrifice clarity.

For example, renaming the common shopping cart “Your Personal Treehouse” for a landscaping ecommerce site might sound cute, but would leave users scratching their heads about where to complete their purchase. At the end of the day, copy on the web needs to be functional; it can be creative when possible – but always clear, direct and intuitive.

When it comes to the final product, usability is king. Good UX means constantly striving to understand the people who use what we make, investing in an iterative process that gets refined and improved as we go. This includes user testing, refining SEO and optimizing content for clarity. That way, people don’t even realize how usable our digital experiences are.

Good UX presents a brand as friendly and easy to work with – every click is part of the brand experience. That means these user flows should be central to every web assignment. And if you think of UX simply as a human journey through the digital world, that goal is perfectly attainable.