10 steps to an engaging user experience

These days, building websites or apps that attract and retain customers has become somewhat of a science.

User experience designers can be likened to architects. Like the architect who builds your home, a UX team builds a comprehensive blueprint, which outlines every single detail of the site's features and functionality.

But it's not a one-shot deal. Getting to an intuitive and engaging user interaction requires many steps. Here are top 10 tips to help you deliver an amazing interactive experience for your users.

01. Design for the user, really

Fantasy, where Irene Pereyra worked, used colourful infographics to guide users through many facts in a fun way in Civil War 150

Back when online interaction was still in its infancy, and not much thought had been given to whom we were designing for, users were all too willing to spend their time learning the interaction required to complete tasks on websites. If users were confused, people often assumed they just weren't tech savvy or well-informed on how to navigate the internet.

As more and more websites, mobile devices and tablets started popping up, users weren't as willing or patient to 'learn' on their own. Nowadays, you'll see more users becoming frustrated and even angry when they feel a product, application or website is substandard – and rightfully so.

It's tempting to design with your own preferences and tastes in mind. But that won't help users complete tasks on the site if they have a whole different set of preferences and needs. Think about what users want to do and help them to complete those tasks in the easiest and most intuitive way possible.

Are they browsing? Searching? Gaming? Watching video? Trying to complete a task? Looking for specific content? It's the UX team's job to look at the entire experience holistically and make sure that users' needs are always met.

02. Do your homework

Listen and absorb. The more conversations you have with clients, the better informed you'll be. Dive deep into every piece of documentation, research their field, examine all content with a fine-tooth comb, understand the client's goals, document thoroughly all of the client's wishes (no matter how small) and talk to as many people across as many departments as possible. 

Another crucial part of listening comes from doing a thorough analysis of what competitors are doing in the same space. Are there any innovators that you can learn from? Have they made any mistakes you want to avoid? Is there one universal component that ties all of them together? Were there any missed opportunities?

The types of sites you may look at during this analysis phase can vary dramatically. Looking at cat food sites when designing an application for audio equipment can be helpful as a reference as the user behaviour could well be the same for both. 

You can learn valuable lessons from UX best practices across completely different industries and form factors.

03. Be an advocate for the user

Anton & Irene will present a talk and a workshop at Generate London in September

We often think of the user as our client, though it's not entirely true. In any project, there are sets of business objectives that need to be met and it's the UX designer's responsibility to meet those objectives, while at the same time informing the client about the user's needs. 

That's why the greatest digital projects are often those where there is a perfect equilibrium between the client's objectives and the user's needs. Sit on that fence, and balance well.

04. Forget about 'Nancy', think user types

Personas are vital when it comes to structuring the content. Look at all the content holistically and think about what people are trying to accomplish. Doing this helps prioritise the content and allows the site to be structured around the user's goals. 

But traditional personas – "Nancy, who is 28-35 years old, drives an economy car, has a four-year-old PC she primarily uses for email..." – won't offer much insight into the user's actual behaviour.

Instead, group basic User Types into categories according to what they want to do on the site such as 'browsing', 'comparison shopping', 'killing time', 'looking for specific content'. These groupings will provide you with much more useful insights about why users come to sites or applications, the context of use (where and how), what content they're seeking and how much time they have.

In turn, you'll be better equipped to design the website or application around their behaviour patterns, thus making their fictional names, ages, professions and income levels irrelevant.

05. Remember that less really is more

The 20 Things I Learned About the Web and Browsers project reinvented the experience of reading a book for online users

You may think this is obvious and doesn't need further explanation. But most sites and applications still manage to get it wrong. The key is to cut down tasks required by users to the bare minimum. Get rid of all the clutter that doesn't add value – or worse, distracts and confuses the user.

Know exactly how you want your users to travel through your site or app, then guide them as if you were holding their hand through the entire process. Again, users want things to be as simple, worry-free and fast as possible. If they can see what's coming next before even clicking on something, they'll be happy.

06. Pretend you're working for Fisher Price

Fantasy (where Irene Pereyra was working) and Google created Messages for Japan following the 9.0 earthquake that struck there, featuring big buttons

Fantasy's CEO David Martin had this saying, "All interaction should feel like Fisher Price." In other words, when you make things bulky and oversized (like most children's toys) and design digital experiences for 'fat fingers', it will automatically be easier to use. So how do we translate this into designing engaging and interactive user experiences?

Rather than using the standard input fields, radio buttons or checkboxes, try using big buttons, jumbo sliders and giant input fields. You'll see user engagement increase and bounce rates drop. Isn't that what all UX designers strive for?

Labelling is also extremely important. Whenever you ask users to provide information, try to use cheeky, simple, and to-the-point terminology so that it will feel less like a hassle. The result will be that users will feel more emotionally compelled to complete the process. And that could mean a boost in signups, web traffic, online sales and ROI.

07. Take cues from tablets

Fantasy teamed up with CBSNews.com to create an elegant and visually rich online news experience for viewers of American news program 60 Minutes, inspired by tablet app design

Because you're already limited by the amount of real estate on tablets and smartphones, the need to simplify interactions is even greater.

Ask yourself if your design would work on a tablet. If the answer is yes, you already have the two basic building blocks in place for a strong user experience: clear hierarchy and intuitive way finding.

08. Design your UX

Adding placeholder text for copy next to some grey boxes underneath a row of navigation links does not constitute design. Visual hierarchy, content grouping, spacing, positioning and size are all things that should be solved in wireframes before a visual designer even sets eyes on it. 

If in your wireframes you're working within the actual site or application width, and 12px text in your template is actually 12px in design, you're on track.

09. Collaborate with all departments

User experience design alone is not enough to make great work and it will surely not provide all the answers. Listen, collaborate and become the liaison between the client, the user and the rest of your internal team. Only then can you create the best possible experience for the user while still meeting all business objectives.

Remember, you're not alone. UX designers, visual designers and interactive developers all have a hand in making a project a success – it truly is a collaborative and multi-disciplinary effort. When it's a shared passion and everybody pitches in with their level of expertise and voices their opinions, magic happens.

10. Don't grade your own homework

The chance of you hitting the bullseye with your first shot is very slim, so be prepared to design iteratively as you gather more information about the performance of your site or application.

You should only do quantitative analysis on your own work. Tracking the performance and understanding where people are dropping off is extremely important and should be done in-house. 

But a third party should always conduct the qualitative user data analysis so you can truly have an objective testing environment. Doing this in-house is much like grading your own homework and won't give you the depth of truth and insight that you're looking for. 

If you want real objective answers, let someone else do the user testing and take those learnings into your next iteration.

This article was first published in 2011.

Irene Pereyra is now half of New York-based design studio Anton & Irene, who will be hosting a workshop at Generate London on 20 September that will teach you how to quickly come up with a solution to a client brief, and create a convincing presentation that sells your idea, within just a couple of hours.

Anton & Irene will also talk about their experience on how to establish a good work/life balance while producing creative work for both.

Reserve your spot today. If you buy a combined workshop and conference pass, you will save £95.