Humanizing the Digital Experience

I have been with for 20 years this December and am the Director of User Experience. I started in Graphic Design and have developed many roles as the company has grown. My main focus has always been the underlying structure of web design and the different elements, messaging, and user interactions that define a good site blue print. In the late 90’s, we were simply trying to understand what a web site was, what the important parts were, how to improve them, and how to build it better. We have come a long way since then. Websites are no longer just show pieces, ecommerce engines, or even a representation of our businesses online. They are expected to perform and convert.

Until the last decade or so, we didn’t fully qualify the User Experience. We didn’t truly quantify what worked and what didn’t for the user. Many in the industry made assumptions based on common accepted design & development architecture. This lead to a lot of popular ways of doing things the wrong way – and still does. Many user experience & interface decisions were made with statements that started like, “oh, here’s a great idea…”. Even more common is implementation without any UX consideration at all and executed by whomever is there to fix it, often developers. We know a lot more today about people’s expectations of websites and how they behave while using them. So in order to create the “optimal” experience for our users, we need to take a step back and examine their needs and expectations.

The Baymard Institute, a leading UX research organization, has through intensive, decade-long research, identified nearly 8500 separate usability issues in an ecommerce website. They have also issued over 650 recommendations on how to fix these issues. Quite a few of these suggestions, along with decades of trial & error best practices, can be applied to non-ecommerce experiences as well. This gives us a great place to start and if we all have a mission, this is likely mine – using evidence-based design to rebuild or revise a website to align it with the optimal user experience.

  1. What is the significance of UX in today’s marketplace?:

We know a website potentially has thousands of unresolved usability issues, according to the Baymard Institute. This is not to say a lot of sites don’t get it right. If we look at the numbers, though, even the very best - the top 50 UX performing websites - are at best 40% optimized! And it’s much lower for mobile optimization. What happens when we begin to fix these issues? To give you an example of the impact, up to 35% of cart and checkout abandonments are due to usability issues alone. This represents a 250-billion-dollar opportunity in recoverable revenue.

  1. We know UX is critical, but what has changed in the last few years?

With organizations like the Baymard Institute providing sound database design information, we have seen lot more businesses taking optimization seriously - and it pays. If we move a site’s conversion rate and average order value just a few percent, a few tenths of a percent, typically the level of effort to do this is far exceeded by the returns. That’s without increasing our SEO or marketing spend and the incremental revenue continues long after the work is done. A/B testing has also proven to help validate many UX research findings. What’s changed? The smarter organizations are actually committing to the UX as a practice, not just as a trend.

  1. How do you know your current experience is effective?

Through benchmarking we can develop a UX score. This helps us to see the relative potential for improvement. Many of the best ecommerce user experiences on the web have been benchmarked under half of their potential and mobile is, at the very best, a third. The majority of users are likely having a completely under-optimized, if not broken experience, and particularly on mobile due to a lack of consideration for the sized viewport and device. A/B testing can help to validate very specific experiences, but a better strategy may be to step back and look at those higher impact items that will get the most return.

  1. What is your process to enhance UX?
    1. Follow-up: How would you prioritize elements in your design/experience?

We often start by benchmarking and developing a UX scorecard. This gives us a relative performance rating in an industry, one to create a baseline for improvement. We then perform a UX review which examines all of those usability issues and related recommendations. We end up with very specific page-level assessments and, most importantly, a set of detailed guidelines or instructions on how to fix the issues and improve conversions and performance. This may or may not include wireframes and graphic mock-ups. It depends on the need, budget and whether the client has design resources already in place. Many UX recommendations are development-based and are not strictly front-end design or visible improvements.

As far as prioritization goes, we know which items typically cause the biggest problems or have the largest impact. We also identify the most important pages and flows and tend to address the most impactful issues in those first.

  1. What does the future hold for UX?

As long as we have had digital experiences, UX has existed - even though the discipline has not matured until more recently. A majority of the recommendations we make will never change. You won’t be faced with a “UX 2.0” or “UX squared” in a few years. As new web features, functionality, and flows are created and change, many suggestions will be added or updated. Most of the guidelines for UX are based on human behavior and interaction with standard control elements like forms, buttons, selections, and being more effective with structuring the site, categorizing of navigation, using natural language, and simplifying messaging. I think the future of UX is more of it. More consideration and goals to obtain a higher level of optimization - not only for websites but everything we do. We are a consumer society. Most of the goods & services we offer today will be offered tomorrow. Some may come and go but new trends also need good UX.

  1. Are there particular sites that are doing UX well? Please explain.

I do have a list of sites that do a great job - overall. But before I mention these there are a few important things to remember. They don’t do everything well. They may not even do things consistently well on the same page. Many of these sites are completely unaware of what to fix or not to fix. It becomes obvious when they remove or change something that was in fact optimal. It’s kind of like the way some sites have removed breadcrumbs, recently viewed items, and some type of formal review process from last step of the checkout. It’s important to validate everything you are looking at and to model against multiple data points and examples, especially when new UX presents itself. Here are some exemplary sites:

B&H Photo - Cart & Checkout, Homepage & Category, and Mobile E-Commerce
Home Depot - Cart & Checkout, good Mobile E-Commerce, and decent Homepage & Category
Sears - Homepage & Category and decent Mobile E-Commerce
Nordstrom - Homepage & Category and Cart & Checkout
ASOS - Homepage & Category UX
Office Depot - decent Cart & Checkout, elevates Office Depot’s UX performance, although mediocre Product Page

Oddly enough, the best UX may be sites that don’t score high overall but do just ok, consistently, in all categories.

Thanks again to the Baymard Institute for their commitment and diligence to the science, study and art of UX

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