Learning UX From The Real World

One of the most recurring questions I get from people just starting out in the UX field is if I have any tips for getting started in UX design. What books do you recommend? What should I do to get started? How can I get in the mindset of creating better user experiences? While they are all completely valid and reasonable questions, the truth is I really don’t have a good answer. I’m happy to give out advice (and, I have) but, personally, I approach it in a very different way.

As anyone who even knows me remotely know, I’m a sucker for traveling and visiting great hotels. Why? Because these establishments have perfected the customer experience - which is not that different from a digital user experience. So the way I tend to think about user experiences and how they can be perfected is by looking for inspiration in the real world and applying it.

Reducing friction

One of the core things that we look to UX design to help solve is reducing friction. This can be anything from reducing steps during a flow, like a signup or checkout process, to communicating more clearly during a critical action, like deleting something or making a purchase. Well for anyone that’s ever traveled, you know that everything from booking your trip to being at the airport, flying and checking in to your hotel can be packed with friction. So where better to study how companies can reduce friction than by experiencing it in real life?

The experience doesn’t start when you’re entering the hotel or even when you’re flying out. No, the experience starts when you’re booking the trip. That’s the first touch. So if all hotels are supposedly ‘unique experiences’ why does all of their websites look and act the same?

I have a couple of select hotels that I visit on an annual basis. During a recent stay at one of these hotels, they told me when I checked in that they have all my information on file already so there’s no need for me fill anything out. The next morning, I found the Wall Street Journal outside my door, they had my wife’s allergies written down when we visited their restaurant, and the invoice was emailed to me before I had even left the grounds! Needless to say, it was a great frictionless experience. The benefit of the staff not having to ask these repeating questions is that they can talk to me about more fun stuff, like plans for the day and getting to know me and my preferences even better for my next visit!

Now compare this to another hotel experience - a hotel that even touts itself to be “like staying at a friends’ house” even. Now while the service is really friendly they still occasionally ask me if it’s my first time visiting even though I’ve stayed there five or six times. Such a simple thing to get right with good data keeping, yet so many hotels (and apps!) get these simple things wrong.

There’s that saying “success is 80% showing up”. For an app or a website, I believe the saying should be “success is 90% getting the basics right”. Whenever I do UX reviews of apps or websites (you can hire me to do this), one of the most common responses I get afterwards is that they can’t believe how they missed all of these basics. We rarely talk about how difficult simple experiences are to create.

“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”Steve Jobs

Keeping it simple and clear

Something very weird is happening on the pizza scene where I live. Basically, there are two different kinds of pizzerias. There’s the kind that made the menu include every possible option, just like the pizzeria near where I live which menu currently includes no less than 102 (that’s one hundred and two!) different pizzas. For some reason though, I still have to make a custom order my pizza every time! The other version is the complete opposite, they are usually a bit fancier and their menu will have no more than four options. And you know what? Limited choices makes it far easier to make a decision. The same thing applies to design. In fact, here’s something that I wrote in a client’s UX strategy years ago and apparently you can apply it to pizza menus too!

Limit options. The time it takes to make a decision increases with the number and complexity of choices. More choices results in longer to think about these choices and make a decision. Simplify choices for the user to ensure by breaking complex tasks into smaller steps. Avoid overwhelming users by highlighting recommended options.

The beauty of white space

Designers love to talk about the importance of white space, but what’s the right balance? And more importantly, how do you discuss white space with clients that want to get as much information per square pixel as possible?

One of the thing that all great cities have in common is nature - whether it’s in the form of parks, actual forest areas, or the sea. I like to think that white space is just like the relationship between commercial buildings and parks. A city with just commercial and residential buildings is boring. It’s proven that people living in cities with access to green space actually feel a lot better. But if there are too many parks and green spaces, well, it’s not really a city is it?

Aerial photo of Central Park by Jermaine Ee through Unsplash

What do you use to think about experiences?

So while books, podcasts, and conferences can be great for finding new ways of tackling the UX problems we face in our daily work, why not try to think about how the rest of the world faces these same sort of issues and how they solve them. I think you’ll be surprised at how much inspiration you can find in the most surprising places if you only open your mind to it!

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