Monday, September 17, 2012

Optimizing the User Experience -- How & Why

Much is written about the critical importance of user experience (U/X) in the success of an end-product, particularly on the consumer side.  But, a great U/X should be job 1 for business & enterprise-focused products and services as well (including software and Internet services).

I asked Chris Meyer, Sorenson Media's Director, Creative & Product Experience, about his perspective on the subject.  Chris is an extremely talented guy.  He helps us delight our customers in all customer touch-points, and he also helps make us look very good (I hear that a lot from people outside the company).  My interview with Chris is intended to cover the topic generally and is not intended to be a Sorenson Media advertisement (although Chris illustrates his thoughts with specific examples from his work at Sorenson Media).  Chris simply knows his stuff.  Here is my full interview:

Q:  You are the Director of Creative & Experience here at Sorenson Media. Can you talk a bit about what that means?

A:  Sure. User Experience to me is how your audience feels when using your products. Everything our potential and current customers interact with from start to finish creates an experience. The point is ultimately to evoke an emotional response, so effective design solves problems in a delightful way.

Q:  You mentioned “everything” from start to finish? What would you say these elements of experience are?

A:  Well, first you have to have a strong brand identity that appeals to the appropriate group of people, what we call a customer demographic. Does it speak to them? What are their color preferences? What type of imagery do they respond well to? Does the basic branding make them feel confident in Sorenson Media’s ability to provide them with what they need? Is is up to date with the collective design aesthetic of the time, and competitive with others in the space.

Second is workflow, or processes that bring a user from one point to another.  Our first workflow is the website. It should provide an effective method for finding information and purchasing our products, while maintaining brand. We sometimes call this information architecture.  Second, and most importantly, the products we design should be easy to use- as simple as video encoding can be- providing solutions to our customer’s multifaceted video-related workflows. This is accomplished by effective user interface.  Products should be on brand. The experience from initial brand recognition, web site conversion, and finally product use must be super consistent from a design and interface standpoint. This creates a pleasant and seamless experience, increasing confidence and delighting our users. That’s one of the emotional responses we are looking for.

Q:  You mention User Interface. Isn’t that the same thing as User Experience.

A:  It is actually a very important subset or Experience. Design being the first example I gave.

Q:  So, how would you characterize and effective User Interface?

A:   It should be easy to use. This means everything is presented in a clear, effective and intuitive manner, building on established-over-time interface concepts for familiarity. Be concise. Don’t bombard users with too much information, show only what is needed, and allow for progressive interactivity once they get deeper in the app.  The design should be consistent to the overall experience like I mentioned above. It needs to be functionally beautiful, but not in the way.  Elements should be used consistently throughout the app, and relate well to one another. Interactions and feedback should be consistent. Error handling or something like this should always be handled the same way. This type of stuff gives you an “optimized” application. Actions are performed in the least amount of steps due to intuition more than learned behavior.  Make sure your app doesn’t lag. Work with your engineers to make sure the pages load quickly, (your design influences this, so be careful) the navigation is snappy and states load appropriately. Nothing is more frustrating than waiting for a sluggish bloated app.

I also like to provide help within the application in an unobtrusive way. We do this in the newest version of Squeeze server for example. Help can cut down on the amount of mistakes made by the user during the intuitive learning process, and make for an overall more pleasant workflow.

Q:  How does marketing play a part in this overall experience? You work closely with our Marketing department here at Sorenson Media.

A:  Marketing is actually a very important element of Experience. We tend to think of Marketing as selling something, which is true. There are other aspects that are a critical part of Experience, however. I want to mention the copy. The words we use. This creates what we call a Tone -- a feeling a user gets when he or she looks at our design and reads our words. The copy should always be accessible and friendly, maybe even a bit humorous on occasion. Video encoding is complicated stuff. Our words and presentation can take some of the weight off and make it easier to understand. Also type is design. Typography, the fonts we choose evoke an emotion, they also influence the motion on the page and the layout of the page.

Q:  How does a font evoke an emotion?

A:  Well, without getting too deep, serifed fonts, like Times or Georgia, are more traditional- they give a foundational feeling, trust maybe, but also represent establishment. Sans serif, such as Helvetica, can be cool and technical. We use a humanist sans serif, which in this case means rounded. As designers we know these type of fonts appear more friendly, approachable.

Q:  Are there any other aspects of experience you would like to mention?

A:  Yes, for sure.  Customer service is really important, and is part of the overall workflow I mentioned. Have a problem? Need to ask a question? Our guys do a great job completing the circle- helping our customers along in a professional friendly manner. Next would be Community. You have to set up a place where users can interact with one another within the experience. They should be able to answer each others questions, work together to solve interesting problems, share knowledge.

Q:  So how do you know all of the things we do in terms of design are effective here at Sorenson Media? You can have a beautiful design, but it it doesn’t do what it is supposed to.

A:  Yes, exactly.   We have several stages we like to go through to produce effective products.  First, Identification. We have a great PM, Randon Morford, who tirelessly figures out what our customers need and are asking for. Sales and customer support are also strong resources for this information. When designing the interface for a product, we make decisions based on this information. Also, as I mentioned above, aesthetic consistency in the web space must be analyzed. We like to look at lots of other websites and products to see what they do and don’t do effectively to help generate ideas in Creative.  Second is iterative releases, or agile software development. Get things into our customers hands quickly, and improve more afterwards. For example, we’ve used Google multivariate to optimize our website designs as they are released, and are performing usability testing for the next version of Squeeze.

Q:  Usability testing? Maybe you can elaborate on that one.

A:  Sure. Usability testing can take a few forms. Mostly we get people in a room and ask them to perform a task in Squeeze without any help. When they struggle, we know what we need to improve upon. Feedback is key.

Q:  Any final thoughts for our readers? What is your philosophy in a nutshell?

A:  Keep it simple, keep it beautiful. Delight your users while solving their problems. Provide them with the resources they need to succeed. Have a point of view -- emulate what you find to be effective, but stay true to your aesthetic.

Thanks Chris -- good stuff!