Customer Experience Is Key to Web Design

User experience, as apposed to technology, drives the development process of successful a Web site.

It's all about the user experience, not technology.

That was the chief message in Adaptive Path President Peter Merholz's keynote address at this week's Web Design World, held in Seattle, Wash.

Merholz pointed to George Eastman, who rethought cameras and photography when he introduced film on a flexible roll in 1888. His new Kodak camera cut the instructions needed to take a picture from 17 steps to just three. Eastman epitomized this simpler experience in his slogan, "You press the button, we do the rest" — the complicated processing was handled by Eastman's firm. The customer experience — taking pictures — became far simpler, and popular.

By changing how people interacted with photography, Eastman revolutionized the industry. Yet, Merholz insisted, Eastman wasn't driven by technology but by asking what his customers wanted.

Traditional Dev Neglects User Needs
Unfortunately, technology is at the heart of traditional product development (think DOS and Wordstar), in which customers are grateful for the technology and therefore don't worry about a product's design. In the next development stage, designers work on enhancing the feature set, assuming customers are basing their purchasing decisions on lengthy instructions in a product brochure or comparison chart. "What does that give us," Merholz asked. "The blinking 12:00 on VCRs because customers found the product had become too complicated and no longer did just what they needed it to do."

Merholz argued that the design process of successful products focuses instead on experience, then designers figure out what features and technology can satisfy a customer's needs while providing the desired experience. He sited TiVo, iPod and Wii as products whose designers got it right. "Microsoft and Sony released game consoles that offered more of the same," Merholz said. Nintendo added an inexpensive part, focused on the user experience and had a remarkable hit on its hands.

"Companies realize that people interact with products like they do with people. People see tech products as other people, as something they can relate to." People want to engage with people who know who they are; they expect the same level of confidence from a product they buy — or a Web site they visit.

The User-Centric Approach
Designing a successful Web site means using the user interface, not data and logic, to drive the development, which is the exact opposite of traditional design.

How can a company represent the user experience in Web design if the enterprise has no visionary, such as Apple's Steve Jobs? Merholz suggested that your team articulate (and then uniformly share) the experience strategy — what experience you want to deliver to your users — then use that statement as the star that guides your team.

Finding out what the user wants isn't hard, Merholz noted; customer feedback loops and on-site visits are just two methods available to any company. Employees of a financial firm that Merholz worked with told him a key goal of their Web site design was to help users execute transactions. Instead, a survey found that their users were more interested in tracking portfolio performance — which was reflected in the design of the portal page that emphasized tracking over transactions.

It's Not All About Design
Companies fall into a trap when they focus only on Web design, Merholz warned. The Web isn't enough — the financial firm also needed to consider the experience customers had with their branches, call center and monthly statements. You must leverage the entire system.

For example, Eastman's design was applied to both parts of his system — the camera was just the interface to the complex, out-of-sight processing and printing tasks. Similarly, iPod keeps it simple because iTunes is where the complex interactions take place, not on the iPod itself. By distributing functionality to where it's appropriate, Apple has been extremely successful.

"Likewise, Flickr has clarified and simplified the confusing world of digital photography," Merholz continued. "The company created its experience strategy, which guided their design. In the end, Flickr knows who it is and offers an interface to the complexity of uploading, printing and publishing photos."

Merholz concluded: "I have three lessons for you: Focus on the customer experience, create and follow an experience strategy, and think about entire systems and services — not just products."

About the Author

James E. Powell is the former editorial director of Enterprise Strategies (

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