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A Quiet Revolution in Design

  |  June 13, 2001   |  Comments

Many good Web designers have intuitively known that the Web really is different. Few, however, had begun to actually put all the pieces together and formed a new discipline. That's changed.

If you aren't too closely tied to the world of Web design, you may have missed a quiet revolution that's been going on for the past year or so. And unlike many superficial design "revolutions," this one has much less to do with the aesthetic of the moment and a heck of a lot more to do with the future of the Web and how we use it.

Basically, a bunch of designers have finally realized that the Web is different. Really different. And although many good Web designers have known this for a long time at an intuitive level, few had begun to actually put all the pieces together and form a new discipline. Now they have: experience design.

The nascent field of experience design comes from a realization that the Web is about a lot more than graphic identity. A Web site is the place where all the elements of a company -- graphic identity, customer service, products, services, and structure -- come together in one place. And interacting with a Web site conveys much more than the graphic brand identity of the company -- it's all about the experience of moving through the site and interacting with all of its various parts.

In many ways, the realization that Web design must incorporate what people do on the site (rather than simply how it looks) is a realization that Web design is much more like product design than print design. Products are made to be used. They have to be functional, to be sure, but they also have to be aesthetically pleasing and adequately constructed. As a result, product designers have, for years, known about testing their products on people and in the field, something that Web designers are just now discovering for themselves.

The discipline of experience design also incorporates another element that is so often left out of graphic design: time. Although interacting with an ad or brochure is something that takes place during a fairly limited time, an experience conveyed by a Web site is something that unfolds over a period of time as the user navigates through the virtual space of the site.

If all this sounds like a bunch of academic gobbledygook, it's not. In fact, now that times are tougher than ever for the Web biz, concentrating on the customer experience is far more important than focusing on fancy new technologies or clever marketing twists.

How important is customer experience? If you look back at the graveyard of failed dot-coms, it's possible to argue that many of these sites were killed by poor customer experience more than anything else. Sure, many had serious business model problems, but many e-commerce sites died when they realized (too late) that it really wasn't about getting customers, that it was about getting them to come back. Just look at Pets.com -- incredible brand recognition (Who doesn't know the sock puppet?) but bad repeat traffic. Dead.

Today, as the Web consolidates and fewer sites start to fight for a bigger share of the market, the sites that provide the most compelling and customer-appropriate user experiences are the ones that are going to thrive. Amazon.com's success has as much to do with the experience of being an Amazon customer as it does with the selection, maybe more so.

Unfortunately, there's a now trend toward defining "experience design" as applicable only to the Web. It's not. The Web's just one part of the customer experience; the retail environment, the advertising, and the customer service offered by a company also contribute to the brand experience. Though realizing the importance of customer experience is a big step forward for designers and marketers everywhere, we've gotta remember that experience happens anywhere companies and customers meet.

If you're interested in learning more about experience design, check out the following sites:

  • Gain: AIGA Journal of Design for the Network Economy. The American Institute of Graphic Arts' hub for all things experience design. Case studies, though-provoking articles, and profiles.

  • Useit.com. Jakob Nielsen's ongoing series of articles on information architecture and information design. Not much on the graphic end but tons of good thoughts on how to make sites that actually work.

  • Creative Good. One of the best customer-experience consultancies out there. An incredible array of good research and resources on its site.

  • Goodexperience.com. Creative Good founder Mark Hurst's Web site and archive of his Good Experience newsletter. Weekly news, insight, and all-around great commentary about customer experience design.

  • Quarry Integrated Communications' Idea Mine. Fabulous selection of presentations (some great intros to the field), white papers, discussions, and commentary from some innovators in the Web usability and experience field.

  • ACM's interactions. The site for the Association for Computing Machinery's human-computer interaction interest group. Lots of good articles focusing a little bit more on the academic/technical end of things.

  • Metropolis. Typically focuses more on the architecture/interior design world (but keeping up with these areas really helps spark ideas for the interactive end).
These sources should provide you with plenty of know-how to get a good grasp of experience design.

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Sean Carton

Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.

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