Aidan Foster is the founder of Foster Interactive, our partner in designing and building many websites for B2B and higher education clients. This is part of a conversation he had with Brent Weaver of The Digital Agency Show podcast, where Aidan talked about the importance of putting User Experience (UX) at the front of the conversation about website development.
Q: What is user experience design?
A: UX design is when you identify the needs of your website’s audience and you identify the needs of your organization and you systematically find the overlap, where there is some boundary between those two things. That overlap is where people can solve their problems with your solution.
Q: Why should organizations focus on user experience design?
A: If you design a great-looking website but your clients or customers can’t easily find the content they want, because it isn’t organized according to their needs & goals, then the website isn’t effective.
It may even look great, but if it’s not meeting your business goals, and you are basically throwing away money. For example, you would not design a house without thinking about how people want to live within that house. The build will look very different for a couple than it would for an 8-person, multi-generational family. It’s the same with websites. We build websites with the users at the front of the conversation.
Q: When did you begin to think about UX as a primary concern?
A: UX came to the forefront in tandem with responsive design, around 1998. We had to begin building websites that would work on mobile and tablets, and it was a major paradigm shift. It wasn’t enough to simply scale a desktop site for mobile – we had to think about if people would access information differently on smaller devices. This was really the start of putting user needs into consideration as the “foundation” of a website.
Before this, we were a web development shop focused in Drupal and now we consider ourselves a UX shop at core core that most often builds sites in Drupal.
Q: What is your process for user experience design? And what if a client can’t afford it?
A: We’ve spent many years evolving our well-established process. We begin by doing research on the intended audiences, to try and understand them and build navigation structures that make sense to them. It can be as simple as sending an email survey to your clients or customers, if your budget is limited.
On bigger mandates we will do in-depth interviews with internal and external stakeholders. One particularly useful group to gain audience insights from is your customer service people, and we talk to them about what they are hearing, what the complaints calls are about or which support requests happen most often.
We will divide target audiences into ‘user personas,’ which are essentially fictitious characters, and dig deep into their unique wants and needs, and what content they will likely be interested in on the site. When it comes to the information architecture, we actually test the structure to back up our assumptions. This could involve tree testing, where we put test subjects representing each user persona through exercises to find a specific thing on the site (for example, if you are a university, we may ask the subject to find the contact information for a specific professor, or book a squash court at the athletic facility). We will see if they accomplish that goal and how quickly they do it.
If you can’t afford testing with a sample group, ask a friend to do the tasks. These are ways to validate your assumptions before you spend a bunch of money building the site. We use the user testing feedback to help us refine the structure as needed.
If any agency says they have ‘the answer’ for you before the project starts – before any user research is done – they are basically just making it up. If you don’t put in at least some user research work during the design and development phases, you could end up with a more costly prospect: an unsuccessful website that has to be re-done later.
Q: Do companies’ needs align with those of end users, typically?
A: Businesses have their goals, and users usually have quite different goals. We need to understand both, and our deep discovery process helps us systematically find the place where they overlap. When someone visits your site they need to learn, relatively quickly, how your solution will solve their problems. A well designed website structure allows each different user group to easily ignore what they’re not interested in, so they can find the solution that you can provide for them.
Q: What is one of the biggest challenges when you are working with clients and trying to put users at the forefront?
A: Thinking about all the internal stakeholders you can have in an organization or institution, asking them to agree on decisions is often a challenge. We have to get their input at the right milestones, to have open discussions and maybe disagreements. But if we have a really good pulse on the audience and can show them the research on user needs, it helps build consensus. You have to reframe the conversation away from exclusively focusing on the business and organizational interests. Instead make fact-based decisions geared to the end user.
We work with great clients and often we have really smart people bringing ideas to the table. Instead of debating endlessly, we pick the two best ideas and run a quick user test on both. We can then empirically measure which works better and be confident we’re making the right choice.
Our team and our stakeholders all bring our personal experiences and assumptions to the project. The challenge is that we are not the end-audience. We always have to be ready to challenge our own biases and assumptions with user testing.
Q: How can people learn more about UX?
A: There are two great books which are the cornerstones of user experience research, by Steve Krug. Don’t Make Me Think and Rocket Surgery Made Easy. I highly recommend both.
Listen to the full episode here
About Aidan Foster
Aidan is actively involved in the Drupal community and is the President of Toronto’s Drupal User Group. He regularly speaks at web design events about User Experience Design and Drupal. He has spent nearly 17 years in the industry and has worked in various sectors, including education, human resources, legal, and financial services. Aidan specializes in user experience research and how it can be applied to shape every part of a website, from code to content.