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Last month I wrote A Nomadic User Experience Lesson – The Airport about how navigating an airport is a great way to point out key concepts in user experience design. As a traveler, we are literally pushed into new places and times, bleary-eyed from exhaustion, and are expected to easily make our way to find the loo, the baggage claim, and ultimately the exit so we can get on home or to our destination. To guide our path, we rely on the sights and sounds around us to make sure we’re headed in the right direction.

Now that we’ve looked at the elements of user experience – Users Needs, Interactions, Information Architecture, Navigation and Information Design – we can talk about the most visible layer, Visual Design. Without the underlying framework, the visuals can be merely aesthetic and arbitrary. Good design reinforces that framework.

User experience offline

In the airport, we can be bombarded with information. But somehow, we are able to filter the right info and can determine what we’re seeing. For example, we have been trained to understand that the big sexy looking posters and billboards on the walls are probably ads. They stand out from the Departures/Arrivals screens, the gate numbers, and the wayfinding signage hanging from the ceilings. Why? Because most airports have a brand standard or some kind of guideline that indicates that “their” signs should look a certain way – typefaces, color palette, letter height, placement, etc. This serves 2 purposes:

1). Make it easier to provide consistent graphics throughout the airport for simpler production.

2). Make it simpler for the traveler to find authoritative information, meaning information I can trust because the people in charge put it there.

A great example of where one can fall into a pit of confusion is a simple magazine – let’s take Cosmo. Women know what I mean here – have you ever been reading away about how to make dark circles disappear in ten days, flip the page and then encounter what seems to be a continuation of the article but is really an advertorial put out by a medi-spa or cosmetics company? This happens all the time and is intentionally effective because the ad company designed their ad to look like authoritative or editorial content written by the mag. You are led to believe that this is a testimonial of how the writer looks ten years younger, when in fact it’s a promotion for under-eye cream!

Now, imagine if you had this kind of mix-up at the airport and instead of getting the general info you wanted from the tourism board about the area, you headed straight for the counter of a pushy travel agency selling their wares. In the airport, we want to minimize confusion for the traveler by making it very clear that our Official Information Kiosk is not going to be mistaken for a retail kiosk by using the airports brand guidelines. Clean, minimal, prominence and consistency help the traveler quickly scan his/her environment and make a beeline for the right spot.

User experience online

How does this talk of airport graphics and confusing Cosmo ads relate to the user experience on the web? Well, the same thing happens there. When web designers are tasked with exposing and pointing a user to the “right” info, we pay special attention to hierarchy, affordance, and branding guidelines. We use negative space, linework, color, contrast, scale, and other elements of art and design to direct the eye to the proper places on the screen, in the right order. We make the critical links that are most important larger, more prominent, and closer to the top of the screen so our visitors see them first. We put secondary or tertiary info in smaller containers or boxes so they’re not the first thing the eye sees. We use familiar icons to make our visitors feel at ease and make it simpler to scan for the right item. We put things in the same place on each screen so that our visitors can learn quickly where to look for certain links or types of info. We make it clear that ads are ads by providing captions and always putting them in the header or the sidebars at a certain size. We don’t use too many typefaces and pick a font family to create consistency and subtly indicate that any deviations from those typefaces on the screen might be a marketing message, special alert or an advertisement.

UX is everywhere, not just online

Whether you travel a lot or not, it’s clear to see that there are examples of user experience design hard at work all around us. Think about everything from finding your way around the grocery store or local shopping mall to the instruction manual for that new bike you just bought for your kid. Great design helps people find, make, and do the things they want or need to get done and its starts with keeping this idea at the center of all that we do as designers.

Happy users = happy designers.