Good UX Design: What Characterizes Great User Experiences

Fiona O'Donnell-McCarthy
March 23, 2015

Good UX (user experience) design is all about solving problems. It’s about standing in the user’s shoes and gaining a deeper understanding of how they think and what they need in order to create the right solution. As a field that can combine a wide variety of disciplines from computer science and graphic design to psychology and anthropology, UX design can be applied to almost any interaction between people and space. In thinking about what makes a good user experience, a few key themes immediately jump out.

Defining Good UX Design

1. Good UX design goes unnoticed.

Good UX is about facilitating the task at hand while making it effortless. The user doesn’t have to think about how to do something, they just do it. One way to think about this is how one definitelytends to notice when experiences are bad. Whether you accidentally run into a door because it didn’t open the way you expected, or you’re having trouble navigating a new app, it’s always frustrating when something doesn’t work “like it’s supposed to.” UX matters because good design gets out of the way and makes people’s lives easier. Take the mobile transportation app, Uber, for example. You open up the app and in a couple taps, a driver is on his or her way to pick you up. Once you reach your destination, the app takes care of payment. This seamless experience gets you from point A to point B without the hassle of finding a cab or fumbling through a clumsy transaction. Ease of use is the key to a successful user experience.

2. Good UX design is all about context and timing.

If you’ve ever clicked a video link in the middle of a public place or crowded office, only to endure the embarrassing moment of having it blast louder than expected for everyone to hear, you’re probably appreciative of the fact that when you click a YouTube link nowadays, it’s automatically set to ‘mute.’ Taking these kinds of contextual considerations into account is hugely important to UX design. Context is especially important when designing complementary web and mobile experiences. Consider the tasks you may want to accomplish while at your computer compared to those you’re more likely to do on your phone. When planning a trip, for instance, you may book your hotel, compare prices on flights, and research restaurants while on your computer. But you may check in for your flight, search for directions, or consult your itinerary on your phone. Services like Kayak and TripIt keep these behaviors in mind when designing their websites and apps, prioritizing the tools you need for the given moment. It’s also a matter of timing. Good UX avoids unnecessary roadblocks or interruptions, instead supporting a continuous flow from one task to the next, giving you everything you need at the right moment. Sites like The New York Times and The Hollywood Reporter will suggest additional articles as you’re reading, allowing you to click through to the next topic of interest without having to return to the homepage. This avoids a “hub and spoke” navigation, where you have to jump back and forth from a central point to complete each task. Timing is key to keeping users engaged. Netflix offers another great example here. If you’re watching a TV series, Netflix will queue up the next episode for you and automatically play it after thirty seconds. The user doesn’t need to go back to the menu to choose the episode. She can just sit back and let it play. Great UX design will provide what you need, when you need it, without you having to find or ask for it.

3. Good UX design can become fine-tuned to your needs.

Good user experiences are designed to gradually learn about their users, so that when you return, it already knows your preferences and can make better suggestions. It’s not a stagnant experience, but gets smarter as you use it. Think about a trip to the ATM. How many steps does it take to withdraw cash? At Wells Fargo, the ATM displays my top actions after I enter my pin. With one tap, I can withdraw $40 from my checking account. No need to repeat multiple steps, since I always answer the same way. A good UX considers your habits and adjusts to your needs. Amazon is another great example of this. Based on previous purchases, Amazon can suggest other products that you might need or be interested in. Once you find a product you need, you can skip all the checkout steps and use 1-Click ordering to have the item sent to the shipping address on file.

4. Good UX design balances user needs and business goals.

Good UX design can usually be found in a sweet spot between user needs and business goals. A media site may want to maximize ad impressions, but a page cluttered with banner ads becomes unreadable. The best experience delivers a powerful journalism experience complemented by the advertisement that supports it. The New York Times, Slate, and The Economist have published specially designed sponsored content that carefully addresses these goals. Sometimes, this balance is actually vital to creating brand loyalty. Take Hulu for example. In the beginning, this online video service didn’t have agreements with television networks to offer many popular television shows. If someone searched for a show that wasn’t available on Hulu, would it lead them to a dead-end “no results” page? Hulu decided instead to essentially say, “No, we don’t have this particular show, but click here to watch it on ABC.” They created an experience where they actually sent users off their site, which may seem counterintuitive. This move, however, resulted in users coming back to Hulu over and over again, because they knew the site would always lead them to the content they wanted. In the end, the best user experiences are those that evolve. Technology, trends, and behavior are all constantly in flux, and UX design must adapt to those changes. That’s the great thing about digital design in particular––it’s very iterative. Everything can be prototyped, tested, and modified quickly, and it’s constantly in a state of further development.