John Cowen

John Cowen

User Experience • Design • Creativity

Designing for Stuff in User Experience Design

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I recently read Stuffocation where author James Wallman explores what he see's as an emerging social trend for large scale pairing back of our material possessions.

It's a good read and a theory I could relate to. And - as I'm inclined to do - I began wondering how we are dealing with build up of clutter online.

Thinking back to somewhere around 2005 when I was properly getting started in web design - there was a general prevalence to show lots of links on web pages. Websites wanted to show people how much stuff they had for them to view.

Two things have happened in the last decade: We've realised that people find websites easier to use when they're not bombarded with links, options and decisions. And, in many cases, the amount of stuff (read: content) on websites has grown so much that it's crazy to even think about showing users links to large volumes of stuff in the main navigation.

Aligning wants and needs

This slowly emerging lifestyle change to simpler living is transforming deep rooted cultural beliefs. Since the Industrial Revolution, in the West, we've been trained to equate happiness with financial success and financial success with buying stuff. A century later we're starting to think about re-programming ourselves (and it's only a theory that we're starting to re-evaluate the success/happiness equation), but it remains well established that many of us have wants that far exceed our needs.

It was probably natural to recreate this material desire online. The more stuff we can offer users - website owners figured - the more successful we will appear to be and the more likely people will want to come back to us to read our content or to buy our stuff.

Over time though we all realised our wants, online, are different. We want a bare minimum. We only want just enough stuff to achieve the immediate job at hand.

The opportunity of interaction

Because websites are now so interactive - we're having to deal with users at different stages of a decision making process, or wanting different information from the same page. Here we have a challenge (or opportunity if you prefer) - to really optimise the interactive nature of our web pages to present the right stuff to our users depending on their specific needs at that time.

We can't know this by magic of course. We probably need to start with a 'standard' page - featuring the content that's going to be required by the most common visitor. From here on things get less specific and will be dependant on the type of content, product, service, or whatever you are offering. It will also likely depend on audience type(s), technical and budgetary resources.

The opportunity exists though, for the UX design team to identify the different needs of users at different stages of both the overall buying/decision making process (taking into account the whole lifecycle which might be multiple online sessions to your website and competitors as well as research through other mediums both digital and physical) as well as the immediate journey of the current visit to your website.

Simple is complex

It's always the case that the job of simplifying becomes a complex task. If we take the example of an information heavy website - it's not necessarily a simple job of deleting content, or separating content from long pages onto multiple shorter pages. This might work, but it might be that all the content is relevant and important - just to different people at different times for different reasons. The designer's challenge is how to keep all this rich and valuable content and present it to people in a way that makes sense and ensures they can find the content they want or need.

It becomes like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books. There's a common starting point, from which, everyone is allowed to choose their own route through the site. Our job as UX designers is to help guide the user through this journey - away from the dragons and goblins that are going to prematurely end this particular adventure and through to completion of the task.

There's some debate as to what this role should be called. It's where many designers have described themselves as storytellers - in as much as our job is to guide a user through an adventure, maintain interest levels with the right pace of information being presented and being aware of the overall story-arc of the journey. Others (Notably Stefan Sagmeister in this video interview) argue it's a ridiculous analogy. We're not storytelling, it's just part and parcel of being a designer. So I'm using this story-telling metaphor somewhat warily - but it is a helpful analogy and I think the role of interaction design, which is what we're discussing here, is closer to the role of a storyteller than the print design background of Sagmeister.

Our objective then, as storyteller/designer is to take all the narrative threads and present them to the user in a way that is engaging, easy to comprehend and appropriate. For us to take on this role - we need to know the whole story inside and out. A good story isn't told in an entirely linear process. Sometimes you're given glimpses of the future or stories from the past. Sometimes the narrator, who knows the story outcome, will give clues as to the plot development to give a better 'ah-ha' moment when all the threads pull together at the end.

K.I.S.S

Online it's almost more complex. We need to tell a story when we know users will not be sitting down to read the whole book. We have to find a way of telling multiple abbreviated versions of the story. We also need to know the knowledge level of our audience - how much can we abbreviate the story and for it to still make sense. Can we rely on quick visual clues to guide a person through or do we need to take the time to explain things in greater depth?

The motivations for people to be reducing stuff in their lives is simplification and reduction of overhead. There's a big cost attached to owning lots of stuff - the ongoing expenditure in buying it and then the extra costs of buying bigger houses to store it, and then then greater financial commitment of maintaining these bigger houses. Simplifying your possessions can remove an awful lot of financial burdens.

Storage of stuff online is pretty cheap. Disk space is very cheap and bandwidth is continually dropping in price too. As a result, some of the simplification of stuff has transferred it from the physical to the digital. So all the time I'm talking about simplification of website interfaces to provide a better User Experience - the volume of data being represented online is growing at a phenomenal rate.

All the more reason then to focus on simplification. To ensure our users are not overwhelmed with data. And the only way to simplify successfully is to go through the complex task of understanding our users and getting to know the story we need to be telling them to help them navigate our sites successfully.

You made it to the bottom! Thanks for reading.

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