X marks the spot


8 min read

Posted by Tady Walsh on April 20, 2022

X marks the spot

X marks the spot

Understanding the intent of the user experience

As an online business or an employee of an online business, how many times have you heard a phrase like:

“We need to work on the CX of our site for better engagement!”

And thought… “what does CX mean?

Our online industry is over-run with acronyms; it has been from the very start. Very little is done online without falling under the umbrella of some form of acronym. Allow me to pull back the curtain a little on this.

When the web started out, how people used computers had a very definitive term: “Human-Computer Interaction”, known acronymically as HCI. HCI is the grandmother of all the “X’s” and is essentially the same thing. The reasons why one acronym may be used over another are subtle, but not as distinct as some people would like to believe.

HCI was a huge subject in university “computers” courses (yes, believe me, there was a time when you could study “computers”). No one could complete a programming degree without completing a module on HCI. And yet, over time, it has fallen off syllabi. The courses became less about the why and more about the how. While this was of great detriment, it is being somewhat reversed by the re-introduction of User Experience (UX) modules, but these are often optional and more often lumped in with design courses than those of programming.

When we address the old term “Human-Computer Interaction” it seems a basic concept, so why was it so difficult? “How does a human interact with a computer?”, is the basic premise of the subject. However, what we want computers to do today has evolved dramatically. At a time when computers were used in such a way that to get them to perform any task involved programming a solution-finding piece of code, the requirement of HCI was for those who were more involved in the day to day running of code and computer programming, and less so with casual interactions.

With the advent of home computers and (absolutely) the internet, HCI has evolved from a question of “what is the easiest way for me to make this machine do what I want?” to “how do I do what I want?” We accept that the “machine” (i.e., the computer or the internet) works correctly and will do what we expect. So, the Human-Computer Interaction is no longer a cold interface between a programmer who understands the limitations of the machine, but a daily User, looking for the best Experience of using that machine. This is what gives us the User Experience part of our development equation, the UX. UX is often bundled with User Interaction (UI) and while this is relevant, neither can truly exist without the other. The UI, the design of buttons, links, menus, forms, and how it all looks, and the UX, how it works, and how the user’s interactions are intuited. However, you can’t easily decide how it’s going to look if you don’t know how it’s going to work and vice versa. So, the two go hand in hand, while still being different disciplines.

A great way to think about UX and UI is at the ATM when you are withdrawing money. How many times have you used an ATM where the order in which you use it is different from another? You use one bank’s ATM and it’s:

Card – PIN – Amount – Receipt (y/n) – Money ejects – Card ejects

You use another and it’s:

Card – Amount – Receipt (y/n) – PIN – Money ejects – Card ejects

(All of course assuming you have money in your account!)

It’s a subtle difference, but it’s noticeable. You will remark to yourself, “huh… that’s different” and probably never give it another thought. THIS is the User Experience.

Using the same example, how many times have you used an ATM where the graphic for €20 and €40 are off by juuuuust enough to make you question which button you should press? There are four buttons and four items on the list, so you press the second button because €40 is second on the list, but are you sure? Do you trust yourself? Do you trust the ATM? There’s a moment of apprehension between when the decision is made, and the machine distributes the two €20 notes. This is the UI. How the UI has been designed to align with the buttons is often done for different machines. The bank will update the ATM but won’t update the UI so the labels don’t align perfectly anymore. Again, many of us will barely notice, but the fact that we are being “made to think” proves that the UI has not been well thought out for the machine on which it is being used.

What of CX and BX? It is interesting to see these acronyms become more widely used as they change ever so subtly the intent of the experience. The Customer Experience (CX) very much takes the notion of UX and adds a goal. Customers are people our clients wish to spend money. They wish them to invest or divest in the company, by buying products, so the experience is tailored more towards generating follow-up sales, building on current purchase options, upselling and increasing the likelihood that the customer will make more than their original purchase. While the “customer” may not only be buying things, whatever interaction the business is hoping to have the customer achieve is more in the lines of Customer Experience, which is a subset of the User Experience.

Business Experience (BX) is a whole other way of creating content and driving user journeys for B2B experiences. Businesses who want to work with other businesses will tailor that experience to their partners or competitors in a slightly more targeted manner to ensure that their offerings look attractive for potential partnerships and give priority to their expertise in their respective sectors. Sometimes showing you are the expert is enough and this is done by creating an experience that an average user will appreciate and understand, but a business user will find potentially attractive to creating liaisons with this business. So, while BX is not the primary focus of a User Experience, it can be taken on board as an end goal of that experience for that context.

Finally, while not a member of the “X” squad, Information Architecture (IA) is as equal to a member of the team. IA structures the content of the website or application in such a way as it makes sense. Sometimes the flow of content through a site or app is disjointed; elements are not “grouped” in the same manner; content doesn’t feel like it belongs in this place; link titles don’t align with their siblings. The whole thing seems disorganised and poorly thought out. This is where the Post-It’s come out, and where we start to restructure the content of the experience. Should that page be in that section? Should that content be on that page? How do we reduce the number of interactions necessary to get to this point here? This is called defining the “user journey” and is helpful in breaking down what end goals we want the user to be able to achieve in the easiest manner possible (and no, there is no UJ acronym!).

As Dr. Jones says, “X never marks the spot” and then proceeds to find it marks every spot, the “X” of experience is perhaps the most important part of the user journey. Whether it’s a website or an app, how our users experience our product is the most important part of that journey. Using good UX studies, strong UI design, well thought out IA, and where necessary, bringing in the required elements of CX or BX, we can tailor the overall experience of the user to provide the best possible Human-Computer Interaction.

A little anecdote (Case Study)

I once ran two days of workshops with a client prior to starting work on their IA. Their current issue was that their site catered to a lot of users at different stages of business development and so, annually, those users had vastly different requirements. The existing site had little structure and seemed to assault the user with links to forms and downloads with little distinction as to the importance or relevance of each. I spent around 45 minutes with the head of every department (coincidentally all middle-aged, white-collar, white men) in a large room over the two days with the project owners, with the current site projected on the wall. Every single person I met said the same thing:

“It’s very important that our users get access to our forms. The links must be on the homepage. Why? Because they’re very important forms to our customers! Well, no, not every customer who visits the site will need them, but for those that do, they’re very important!”

I began to despair. Everyone thought their forms and their work was the most important in the building. Every one of the men I met said exactly the same thing, presented the same hollow argument, and never once really spoke about who their customers were or what they actually needed.

At 4:45 pm on the second day (a Friday) a woman entered the room, flustered and apologetic for being late. She was introduced to me as the head of the customer support team, the team that answers the phone when their users could not find that “all-important” form on the site. The first words out of her mouth were:

“If you answer these 10 questions on the homepage of the website, you will cut the number of calls to our support team in half”

I looked to the project owners, who looked at me, and said “why did we not start here?” Unsurprisingly, I scrapped most of the previous two days’ work and finally worked with someone who understood the client’s customers and user’s needs.

Don’t get me wrong. We reorganised the IA in such a way as to make it easier for users to follow so that the flow of the site was structured in such a way that the hierarchy of the navigation matched the possible business evolution. We didn’t ignore everything those heads of department said, we just took a different direction from the intent and context of their concerns.

Ten years later, those 10 questions are still on the homepage…

About the Author

Tady Walsh
Tady Walsh

Tady is a Frontend UX Developer at Arekibo. He has worked in Arekibo for over 13 years and has a keen interest in our customers experience. He has spoken at events on subjects of UX and Accessibility and is recognised for his expertise in this domain.