The Baymard web research institute is based in Denmark, and run by two remarkably dedicated men – Christian Holst and Jamie Appleseed. Together, their skills lie in design, website coding and user experience. The Baymard Institute’s philosophy is seated in taking the originality and thoroughness of academic research and presenting it in a pragmatic and user-friendly format. We chatted to the Danes about their research, finding a good balance for user experiences and designing for multiple devices.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. What type of research do you offer? And what was one of the most interesting topics that you have researched?
We conduct usability and UX research within web in general, but mostly e-commerce related. Some of it we publish as free articles on our website. But mostly what Baymard Institute does is make highly actionable reports based on the findings from our user research studies. We’re currently conducting research on m-commerce, which I expect to be very interesting because it’s a new form-factor and little best practice exists. But we’re currently analyzing the data so we don’t have anything definitive yet. So of published works our most interesting topics have been the ones on e-commerce checkout processes. We expected to find 3 to 5 big fixes that every site should adhere to, but most sites today get the very basics right, so lifting the checkout experience from OK to great is rather a matter of applying 10 to 15 medium to small fixes.
On the Baymard Institute blog, you have written about ‘false simplicity’. What tips can one use for UX when trying to maintain a healthy balance between simplicity and over complication? Can these be opposites and also one in the same thing?
Striving for simplicity is in most cases beneficial when we talk about webpage design and usability. The notion of false simplicity relates to the cases where a User Interface, or a UI element, is made visually simpler, but as a result becomes more complicated to use or understand. for example, if you replaced your main navigation labels (about, videos, etc) here on heavychef.com with corresponding icons, this would visually be a lot simpler, but it would also be much more complex to use – unless you are a super user of your site.
In this sense, the simplest design is not necessarily the design that looks the most simple – it is the one that is the easiest to understand and use for the majority of your audience.
To achieve simplicity in your design, my most straightforward tip would be to formulate a list of the top 3 things people use your site for – these are site goals. Whenever you have an idea for a feature or design check it up against this list. Does it directly help the user in accomplishing one of these 3 goals? If not, consider leaving it out entirely or giving it a low-attention placement and design. If ever in doubt, the classic example is google.com that enforce this rule rigorously.
What is the most effective way of designing for different mobile device screens, aside from responsive web design?
Well, responsive web design is often the most affordable way to design for multiple devices. By only changing a few of your files to use media queries – a part of the CSS3 specification – you can support multiple screen sizes. The current alternatives to responsive web design are having separate apps or device specific versions of your site. For example, m.heavychef.com. This forces you to restructure larger parts of your back-end setup as well as developed and maintain multiple versions of your site.
One alternative is of course to not optimize for mobile at all. With the mobile browsers continuing to improve and the screen resolutions continuing to climb the full-site browsing experience is often tolerable on many of the mobile devices. But if a large portion of your traffic is on mobile devices then I’d suggest you seriously consider upgrading their experience from ‘tolerable’ to ‘great’ by looking into responsive design. For baymard.com we saw that almost 15% of our traffic was on mobile devices, and less than 1% in Internet Explorer 7 or lower. So the time we used to spend on making our site IE7 compatible, we’ve now use on making it responsive for the mobile users.
In the cases where responsive design isn’t possible – for example if you want vastly different experiences across platforms – then developing a dedicated mobile website is often the most affordable solution since this can be tapped into by all the different types of mobile devices. Of course, this may not be an option if you need access to native features. The most effective approach here probably depends on your development team – are they experienced web developers? Then a framework like PhoneGap is probably worth a look. Are they from the world of Objective C and Java? Then writing the apps natively may be more up their alley.
How important is the knowledge of art for designers?
We see web design more as a tool to accomplish the goals of the website and/or the website user, than an expression of the designer’s ability to create art. The core purpose for most websites existence, certainly most business websites, is to accomplish a goal. That can be an online sale, a newsletter sign-up,or a customer learning about your services. Similarly, most users on the web have a goal when visiting a certain website, such as finding information or simply being entertained, although it’s often not as clearly defined. Great web design can be utilized as a tool to make it as easy and frictionless as possible for the website owners and visitors to achieve their goals respectively.
While the knowledge of art might be very useful for the design process itself, it is too often prioritized above the knowledge of how users behave and perceive web interfaces and web elements. That isn’t to say useful sites have to be dull and bland. Nor that artsy sites can’t be useful. Trent Walton’s site, with a new layout for each article, is just one example hereof. Also in regards to question one; there’s a clear focus on the few main visitor goals).
In your opinion, what are some great examples of websites that are offering an extraordinary User Experience?
Well, most user experiences are great when the site doesn’t get in the way for the user to achieve his goal. As such you rarely stop and notice many of these sites – you simply just use them. Wikipedia comes to mind as extraordinary efficient.
Predictably we tend to adopt services that offer an extraordinary experience, so we tend to take them for granted today, sometimes forgetting just how useful they are. Threaded conversations in Gmail. Dropbox file synchronization. Auto-complete search queries in the Google search box. Doodle date & time planning. Facebook event invites. Flight search engines.
I could think of many examples of upcoming spectacular and innovative web techniques, with all the latest in whistles and bells, but most are fascinating proof of concepts rather than useful tools for the end user.
How can you measure when the User Experience is the cause of poor conversions as opposed to other external factors?
There’s no easy way of being sure. The short answer would be to get as much insight as possible on your user’s experience of your site. The difficult part is to actually gain that insight – here is one approach.
Scrutinize your web statistics. If you don’t have any yet, setting up a solid tracking mechanism should obviously be your first step. Are there any steps, processes or elements that have abnormally high abandonments or bounce rate? Furthermore identify your high-quality and low-quality traffic sources in terms of goal conversion rate. Future traffic spikes or dry spells in any of these sources can be ‘external factors’ unrelated to any changes you make to your user experience, yet can still seriously affect your overall site conversion rate. In other words, this is important to beware of so you don’t misinterpret your data.
Carry out a qualitative user study. Just a few test subjects will be enough to identify any major usability pitfalls there might be hindering conversions.
Create a split-test based on the insights gained from step 1 and 2, where you tweak parts of your service or design that are integral to the user experience. The split-test results will provide you with an answer.
Iterate this process. The expectations of your visitors constantly change as the experience offered at other sites change. Remember Jakob Nielsen’s advice: most of the time ‘your’ users spend online is spent on visiting sites other than yours.
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