User experience gauges IT success

CHICAGO – Developing applications with interfaces that render great customer experience – and therefore increased adoption of the tool – is the result of a myriad of well-assembled elements, according to Jared Spool, founding principal of User Interface Engineering.

Spool, who presented at a session at the Adobe MAX 2007 conference in this city this week, was discussing the results of ongoing research into the variables that contribute towards designing for successful user experience. North Andover, Mass.-based User Interface Engineering is a research and consulting firm specializing in Web site and product usability.

The success of the Apple’s iPod is a perfect example, he said, because it’s now the third-largest music distributor, yet it had made its foray into a market that was already 70 years old.

Spool thinks the iPod is technically inferior to Samsung’s SanDisk, yet he said the iPod holds 75 per cent of the market share. It got there, he said, by changing the game and creating “an entire experience” through things like in-store support, and a site for managing the iPod from the desktop (iTunes).

Understanding the importance of user experience design is what will reap success for a company, said Spool, especially one whose business is heavily dependent on its Web site.

The IT infrastructure supporting a Web site may be complex and genius and ultimately drives the success of the site, but the user shouldn’t be privy to the behind-the-scenes machinery, he said. “When experience design is done well, it’s invisible.”

The best user interface designs are those wherein the user doesn’t have to think about what is going on in the backend, said Eric Lysionok, strategic accounts manager with Mississauga, Ont.-based New Toronto Group, an Adobe partner that held a booth at the conference’s Community Pavilion. “It’s totally intuitive.”

Another Pavilion exhibitor, Richmond, B.C.-based Adobe partner Ensemble Systems Inc., agreed. The front-end should be an experience that makes users’ lives and jobs simpler through better interaction, rather than making the backend apparent, said the company’s software engineering manager David Liao.

But even before that, the development process begins with assembling the right team with the right expertise and attitude, said Spool.

The tricky part is that the criteria for creating teams are not what they used to be. “The skills that we need today have grown, yet the size of the design team has shrunk in that same time period,” he said.

Design teams need to be multidisciplinary with people who hold multiple skills, said Spool. Besides the obvious technical expertise, like IT, visual and interactive design, copywriting and editing, there needs to be an understanding of the business. Specifically, there must be an equilibrium between business and user needs.

Spool said the team should understand what drives their business, the domain in which the company toils, and the way in which users interact with the interface.

Design teams at Ensemble Systems have members that dwell in multiple areas of expertise, rather than focus on a sole skill. In fact, the business component in the team is fulfilled by a business analyst who ensures development aligns with business needs, said the company’s vice-president of business development Vlad Ghelesel.

User adoption is the biggest challenge every time a company launches a new app because the tool should be easy to use and understand, and the new functionality should be evident, said Liao. “It’s up to the designer to figure out the new interaction paradigm.”

That balance between user and business is critical especially with a public-facing application, noted Lysionok. “You have to think about the lowest common denominator while achieving your business objectives.”

The right culture is also a critical element, said Spool, in particular, one in which members readily communicate and share a common vision for the application or Web site.

Once the vision is known and supported, frequent and fast iterations throughout the development process must occur to stay aligned with the goal.

Successful companies like Amazon and Yahoo, said Spool, have made such small incremental changes to their sites that continue to enhance the user experience, yet aren’t drastic enough to cause discontent.

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