An expert shares his insights
Jason Levine is the Creative Director of Ramp Technology Group and a professor of interactive design and information architecture at the University of Washington.
For more than 15 years, Jason has guided companies and organizations in user experience design and brand solutions for interactive media. For three years, Jason was Creative Director in London, overseeing five brands for Virgin’s Travel Group.
He’s worked with dozens of clients including Virgin, Vodafone, Microsoft, T-Mobile, Premera Blue Cross, ABC television, All Recipes, the State of Washington, General Motors, and Match.com. Jason attended the School of Arts at California State University Northridge and has won industry awards for his designs.
What are the essential elements to a great website?
There are four fundamental pillars to a good website or any interactive product. You need to think of brand. You need to think of content. You need to think about engagement. And you need to think about being user-centric. When you think about being user-centric, you’ll be thinking about how to optimize the experience to make it simple and functional.
Miss any one of those four things and it can take you down. I see this all the time where you’ll have bad labeling or there’s a convoluted process to do something. Sometimes, there’s a lack of purpose, so the user will wonder why they are there.
What is the most common mistake you see in website development?
Labeling (headings, category tabs, titles, etc.) is one of the most common errors. It’s because a site is being developed by an internal department or someone in a company who is used to thinking about things that makes sense to them as opposed to an outside person. Or the work is being done by a developer who is thinking of things in technical terms or computer-speak.
For example, an insurance company for the military has a site that references “providers” and “beneficiaries.” That’s the internal way they see things. But an end-user sees “beneficiaries” and thinks, Does that mean my children or the person I designate as my beneficiary?
In this case, the insurance company labeled the policy holder the beneficiary.
Can you provide some examples of best-of-class websites?
Their brands are easy to understand and relate to. Their content is direct but approachable. The designs are very open and airy and welcoming.
And it’s consistent. In both cases, the websites are very consistent with the voice they write in, whether it’s a label, instructions, or a marketing message.
Both brands are trying to improve on an existing model, not by providing different services, although they kind of do. It has to do with the fact that they understand the pain points of the existing model and are working to provide something simpler.
You say it’s critical for sites to be “user-centric.” How do you develop a site around the user experience?
At the genesis of a project, it requires letting go of having all the answers. That’s really hard for most managers to do. They are hired because they have answers. But when you begin working on a website, you need to say, “I know what we need to do, but I have no idea how to get there until I start asking questions of people who don’t work here.”
You have to start by understanding your end user and what their needs are; what their pain points are and how they see the world. Then you design your product with that in mind. You follow a process of discovering user needs, extrapolating what that means, and then testing it and developing it. Nine times out of 10, that is not followed for most processes.
A lot of the time you have a developer working on his own. Or a department is directing the work because of its clout. Or it’s a designer who is thinking about all these pretty things he wants to do without thinking of the consequences to a user.
The questions that aren’t being asked are:
Is this interesting?
Is it engaging?
Will people understand it?
Can they do the things they want to do easily?
Is there a process you recommend following for website development?
The user-centric design model focuses on discovery, and then iteration, and then definition.
In the discovery phase, you talk to all parties involved. It’s like you’re a detective trying to figure out what bodies are hiding in the closet. We do the kind of discovery that is common to most companies developing any kind of product. You spend time talking to end users. You observe them using the product or a previous version of the product or a similar product. You do interviews and surveys.
That research helps you develop personas of your users, and then you iterate. You do sketches and wireframes and those low fidelity mockups of how the thing works. Normally, you’ll make it clickable, and then you’ll put it in front of users.
You’ll take a prototype and ask people to try to use it, and you’ll ask people what they think they can do. Then you modify, modify, modify with what you learn. From there, you go to the whole element of aesthetics and understanding your brand, and being able to speak to the user/customer in a way they’ll react positively to.
Where do things typically break down in this process?
A lot of the time, people just develop, and then they’ll do testing and focus groups after they’ve gone live. This is probably the most expensive way to make a mistake and implode whatever it is you’re working on. When you’re too far down a path, it’s very expensive to change directions.
If you show people something early, you can be wrong, and it doesn’t cost a lot to fix it. Meanwhile, if you develop it, and it’s wrong, that’s thousands of hours of code and then you have to fix the code and remap it to what’s right. If I want to swap out something on a wireframe, it’s an hour versus four days.
The investment up front in allowing yourself to iterate saves everyone a lot of time in the long run. But it’s not easy to respect that process when you have IT that makes a lot of those decisions internally for organizations.
With the web, you can iterate. But despite the fact that making a modification here or there seems easy to do, most technologies require so much investment time in infrastructure and for the data architecture and for all the modeling, any edit you do is normally 6 – 10 weeks out, if you’re lucky and you’ve lost all this ROI. And all that time you’re giving the wrong message to your customer or providing a poor user experience.
What are important things to look for when you’re hiring a web designer?
There are two things I look for: I listen for how often they talk about the user; and I listen to see if they can explain the logic and justifications for why they made the decisions they made. Are they using their brain to come up with decisions or are they just letting someone dictate what should be done?
Are there times when a client is dictating something that you, as the Creative Director, think is completely off base?
Plenty of times and so you push back and explain why they might be thinking of things incorrectly. I was with an executive, a few years back, from Classmates.com who was using a house analogy to describe various social media platforms. He likened LinkedIn to a living room. It’s the space that’s a bit more formal, professional where you invite strangers to meet with you. Then he said Facebook was like a den where you invited friends to hang out and play video games. Classmates, he told me, should be your favorite room in the house where you display your trophies and ribbons, and you keep a collection of your best moments in life. I said to him, “The Classmates room you’re describing is a box in my garage.” That was the last time I heard from them.