In the early days of web development, the concepts of User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI)—at least as we recognize them today—were uncharted terrain. While designers and developers eventually began to craft digital experiences that prioritized user satisfaction, the terms “UX” and “UI” had not yet etched themselves into the industry’s lexicon. Despite that, putting the audience first emerged as a foundational principle to guide the design and functionality of websites, even without formal labels to identify them.
Now, of course, most people (and companies) are at least familiar with the terms, and our industry has evolved to cater to those expectations. A series of quiet but steady evolutions has shaped the landscape of UX/UI design.
Beyond the Brochure Site
When websites primarily served as repositories for static information, akin to electronic pamphlets, there were fewer considerations to make regarding how users might engage with information on a website. Now, though, the audience craves immersive experiences, smooth functionality, and interactivity that resonates—which begins by first understanding user behavior and expectations. How do users navigate a website? What do they seek, and how do they prefer to engage with online content?
Today’s users are active participants, which can challenge developers and designers to envision websites as dynamic, living entities that evolve alongside user preferences. Harnessing the potential of cutting-edge technologies often means moving beyond the “brochure” site to embrace the interactive and the experiential.
Elevating Design with Interactivity and Functionality
To create websites that stand out, it’s essential to understand the significance of interactivity and functionality. Interactivity means inviting users to actively engage with the content. Real-time chat support, to name just one example, moves users out of a passive browsing experience, which deepens their connection to what a company offers.
Streamlined navigation, user-friendly search features, and organized content help ensure that users can easily find what they’re looking for, which is essential for companies that consider user engagement to be the ultimate gauge of success.
Front-end developer Josiah Schaefer says, “We’re always thinking through ways we can help a client’s business. How do we make a more successful business funnel, or generate more leads and turn these improvements into dollars for the company and make the users happier?” Schaefer says that sometimes the process begins with assumptions clients have about the origin of a certain “pain point,” but often the “improvement ideas are coming from actual problems that are being reported. They’ll have complaints or issues from customers somewhere along the way, and they’ll ask us to change something to improve an issue.”
Understanding User Behavior in E-commerce
Designers and developers bear the responsibility of deciphering user behavior and better comprehending the customer journey—from the initial website visit to the crucial point of purchase—which involves intricate analysis of the user’s interactions and decision-making processes.
Tracking clicks and page views is important, but designers and developers are really engaged in understanding the psychology of online shoppers—their motivations, preferences, and hesitations—which leads to a detailed assessment of choices the average user may not consciously be aware of while navigating a website. This analysis can reveal insights related to the perception of the brand, the paths users choose to navigate a site, their decision to remove items from their cart or leave the site entirely (possibly to compare its products to those of another company), why a customer leaves a review (or not), and even the manner by which users search for information on a given website.
Design director Ashley Nixon has put years of thought into these matters. For just one example, she points to “the way one client had their products arranged within their site’s navigation. It was problematic, and we had to restructure it because they were too close to the issue.” In essence, the client’s original website presented products in a way that was based on their own inventory preferences and internal categorization, not the behavior or likely tendencies of actual customers. “They couldn’t see it the way their customers did,” Nixon says, “but we could.”
The Need for Fresh Eyes
UX/UI designers have to have fresh eyes for every new project. Understanding user behavior in e-commerce is like solving a complex puzzle, where every interaction contributes to the bigger picture. By deciphering patterns and insights, designers and developers can make the e-commerce more intuitive and conversion-friendly.
While a UX/UI expert can provide valuable suggestions and recommendations informed by best practices and industry analysis, there are instances when entrenched philosophies and overarching strategies must also evolve. With e-commerce, for example, it’s unwise to overlook the profound impact that giants like Amazon have had on shaping customer expectations. Online shoppers carry a set of assumptions and preferences nurtured by their experiences elsewhere—they want easy navigation, personalized recommendations, and free shipping—and often, difficult choices must be made based on their expectations.
That’s the main reason so many online retailers now provide free shipping. Customers expect it. If other online sellers don’t adjust and adapt, sales will drop even lower. A company selling products online that are also available on Amazon should recognize that their website might be treated like a digital showroom by customers who can easily open a browser tab and buy it somewhere else for a better price with free shipping.
The Importance of “Flow”
Like high school students discussing their five-paragraph essays or hip-hop artists concerned with their craft, UX/UI designers and developers often discuss “flow”—which in this case means how easily and naturally a user interacts with (and moves through) a website. As you might expect, the goal is to steer visitors to an intended destination, which might be a checkout page or a contact form. Building the ideal user experience may begin with a logically designed site map, but it eventually involves intuitive navigation with clear menus, consistency in design elements, and smooth transitions between pages.
Ultimately, “flow” embodies the essence of a successful UX/UI design. Creating an environment where users are so immersed in their digital experience that they forget about the interface itself is the goal. The user experience should feel natural, almost intuitive, but that requires a delicate blend of art and science—and an unwavering commitment from designers and developers.
Why Context Matters
No design principle is more important that the immediate needs of a client—their worries and concerns, even if they don’t know the reasons—but contextual consideration isn’t merely a checkbox to mark off during the design process; it’s the essence of crafting meaningful user experiences. Empathy—truly understanding who users are, what they want, and why—should drive the process.
UX/UI designers understand the industry, audience needs, and user behaviors, which can create a competitive advantage for clients with opportunities to move beyond industry norms to attract and retain users accustomed to certain conveniences. Ultimately, the effective management of expectations—which involves acknowledging user preconceptions, establishing the right expectations, and consistently delivering on your promises—is key, requiring designers to stay attuned to changes among all three to maintain a website’s relevance and appeal.
Breaking Out of the Mold
In UX/UI design, innovation is encouraged, but “breaking out of the mold” isn’t always a good thing. While pushing boundaries can lead to groundbreaking designs, not all deviations from the norm are beneficial. Users are creatures of habit, after all—they rely on familiar patterns and conventions to navigate digital experiences. Many of these conventions have evolved over time because they work. Straying too far from the intuitive and accessible ways of navigating a website can be jarring, even frustrating. When designers break the mold, it should be a deliberate and thoughtful process with a clear purpose—and that purpose should be related to enhancing the user experience.
Like the transitional plane between copy and design, a smooth handoff from designer to developer depends upon clear communication. Discussions about the larger goals and purpose of a project are essential, which is one reason our process includes having all relevant team members involved in the earliest phases of a project.
Aristotle argued that a narrative’s design should “arise from the internal structure of the plot, so that what follows should be the necessary or probable result of the preceding action.” Flannery O’Connor said that the ending of a story should be both surprising and inevitable. Which is to say: UX/UI experts ultimately aim to create designs that are both fresh and user-friendly.
Or, to put it another way, a lot of work goes into making this look easy.