In reading Customer Experience: Help People Do Things, Don't Keep Them on Webpages by Gerry McGovern, I was reminded how the overall UX community is singularly focused on this well reasoned, but incomplete idea. While the article, and much of the associated UX literature that pervades the content ecosphere, is applicable in task-oriented domains, it lacks broader applicability because it treats the web as one big shopping cart and ignores two big factors.


The Two Factors Ignored in Task-Oriented Design

  1. The underlying business reasons that create the space where experience design value can be delivered.
  2. The myriad of reasons people engage with web-based experiences.

Understanding the Business Reasons

To be a valuable experience designer, one must first examine and understand why customer and user experience domains exist within businesses. Despite any altruistic aims of the designer, the primary driver, for the business, is to maximize return on investment over time.

This does not mean that business and profit concerns run roughshod over anything else, and that neither design nor technology have a seat at the table. It just means that the business sits at the head of the table. Apple is not a great design company because they make uncompromisingly beautiful products. Apple is a great design company because they make uncompromisingly beautiful products in a way that drives ridiculous amounts of sustainable profit.

This discernment specifically matters because keeping people on webpages is what drives profits for the horde of sites with advertising based business models (like....ummmm....I dunno.....uhhh...!) Sites with advertising-based business models need to design interactions oriented towards driving unique page views and time spent on site.

One of the most recognizable aspects of this is the use of interstitial ads that many sites put between users and destination content. The harsh truth is that even though users hate them, finding ways to have users see more ads and view pages just long enough to capture impression data are the business metrics that experience designers should be aligned with in order to create a non-task based experience where business value can be maximized over time.

Understanding the User's Wants & Needs

After understanding the core business need, a designer must understand the core wants and needs of the user. In the experience design industry, much of the intellectual content generated by the digerati skews towards task-oriented experiences because they are so immediately tactile and understandable. Task-based sites like Amazon and eBay dominate the dialogue for two main reasons:

  1. eCommerce is where the first major source of dollars was during the first boom.
  2. The linear nature of task based sites is easier to grasp and optimize.

Sites oriented around discovery, information and experience not only have different business models, but they also have different user needs to account for. Very simply, users come to Facebook to get lost in the experience. The design of Facebook, and other immersive sites, allows much of the online audience an escape where users want, consciously and unconsciously, to spend large amounts of time. Users often have no other goal than to pass time in such a way that allows them a retreat from other parts of their lives like boredom, stress, loneliness, intense task-oriented focus, etc.

This second discernment specifically matters because user needs, both linear and non-linear, are the guidepost that designers must align business offerings with in order to gain the engaged audiences that are necessary to drive the underlying business goals.

Knowledge and Wisdom Begin with Discernment

When looking to industry giants like Nielsen, one must remember that they are very often academic specialists. Nielsen is truly a ground-breaking figure in the field of experience design, but he is overly slanted to only one dimension of it -- usability. If a designer is seeking to understand how to create great online experiences in a complex and changing environment, there are three resources that I would recommend before Nielsen:

  1. Jesse James Garrett is significantly more holistic in his grasp of experience design and gives a great diagrammatic breakdown of the Elements of User Experience.
  2. Peter Morville's seven facets of user experience is a significantly more useful and instructive model of what factors come in to play and must be balanced.
  3. Strangely enough, if I was content to focus solely on usability, I would still forgo Nielsen and go straight to his partner. Don Norman's The Design of Everyday Things gives a much better description of why interactions, both online and off, are inherently usable or not. His concrete examples are easily understood and provide an abstraction that gives an overall grounding to how to make the everyday tradeoffs based on a model grounded in cognitive science. 

Once a designer has both expanded their perspective beyond usability, and not only grasped but integrated the nuanced difference between customers and consumers, the designer can then see both service and experience design problems through the lenses of both the business and the user. This ability to see from multiple perspectives is the tool that ultimately allows understanding, alignment and effective design.