I first met Evan at SxSW. He's funny, smart and engaging--and we've kept up with each other ever since. I'm no UX expert, but I know it impacts how people receive and perceive content, so that makes it important to me. That's why I asked Evan to give us all some insights.

User Experience: Empathy and Simplicity

A few years ago at SXSW, Kristina Halvorson proclaimed to a packed ballroom, “People don’t come to websites for experiences. They come for content!”

Naturally some UX designers scoffed at the idea, but Kristina’s exactly right. Our users don’t think about an awesome new color scheme or a slick set of icons. Rather they think about the what they’ll gain from visiting our websites: a new recipe, the latest fashion trends, a technology how-to video or whatever we have to offer them.

User experience design helps us serve our users as simply, directly and pleasantly as possible. In other words, our job is to make technology, design and structure work together seamlessly to deliver the content they want without roadblocks or frustration.

Depending upon your specific goals and your users’ goals, user experience design, as a process, can take many different forms. Since we can’t cover everything in one article, let’s examine two universal principles that will help you in most situations.

1. You are not the target audience.

No matter how much you know about your audience and your business, you must realize and embrace the fact that you’re not them. As the creator or owner of a website, you’re an insider who is privy to information and perspective that your users, the outsiders, may never understand. To empathize with your users, you must first admit that you can’t fully understand their perspectives.

For instance, many companies choose to organize their websites similar to their internal department structure, despite the fact that customers often don’t understand or care about this structure. Why does this happen? Simply put, insiders find it much easier to mirror a structure they’re familiar with. Most everyone inside the organization understands the structure, everyone knows which department owns which part of the website and subsequently buy-in is easier. To avoid this pitfall, we must first empathize with our users and design from their perspective, instead of ours. [Get some actionable tips on how to get to know your customers/users]

2. Keep it as simple as possible.

You might think simplicity is a no-brainer, and you’re probably right, but it’s something we tend to forget. We often find ourselves caught up in using the latest technology or fanciest new technique that we forget about our users’ goals and lose focus. We think more functionality, content or design is better, yet our users really want enough to meet, and perhaps slightly exceed, their needs. If we cross the line and offer too many things that aren’t useful, we’re simply creating clutter, which only serves to get in the way of our users.

Does this mean we should do less? Absolutely not. John Maeda gave us a great framework in The Laws of Simplicity: “The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.” Thoughtful reduction isn’t easy. It takes time and effort. Think of time and effort like an equation to balance. In performing any task, a fixed amount of effort is required. As a designer, the more time and effort you spend simplifying your solution, the less time and effort a user will need to spend using it. Conversely, if you throw something together quickly and without consideration, your users will likely bear the burden instead.

Go create value.

If you come away from this article with one directive, focus on creating value for your users. Empathize with them. Build content and functionality to serve their needs. And perhaps most importantly, think of yourself as their servant, seeking to create value for them, while keeping your solution simple, even if this means you have some more work to do.
Evan Carroll is a user experience designer, marketing strategist and author. Previously with Capstrat, a Raleigh-based agency, he now works on the product management team at ChannelAdvisor. He has BS and MS degrees from UNC’s School of Information and Library Science. He serves on the executive board of the Triangle American Marketing Association and the advisory board of the Triangle User Experience Professionals Association. Find him online at EvanCarroll.net.