The first lesson on the first day at UX 101 school focuses on the importance of seeing design primarily as problem solving. It is a claim now so accepted and ingrained within the industry that it is uncontroversial to the point of being bland, meaningless almost.
This is a real shame because it is one of the most powerful realisations anyone involved in design can make. Understood and implemented correctly, it provides the designer with the armoury to reach the holy grail in experience design – that the user’s most immediate need is instantaneously satisfied on the screen in front of them, whether through words to read or controls to interact with.
The problem–solving mindset is that vehicle that moves software from functional to lovable.
But what does it mean in practical terms? Sure, we all know software needs to do stuff, so how does problem solving help it do stuff better? Let’s take a look at a quarter–of–a–century–old design pattern, namely the flow of an e–commerce website, and consider the various problems which the site needs to solve for the user. (All e–commerce websites are subtly different, so for the purposes of illustration we will select some common user needs.)
Problem to be solved 1 – assure
Comfort the user that they are in the right place by giving them a scent that the product they are interested in is available at the right price. This is typically achieved by giving the user the impression that, ‘this is the kind of store that would sell the kind of thing you’re looking for’. This problem is primarily solved through content, imagery, menu system and calls to action.
Problem to be solved 2 – find
Give the user the tools to move from the full breadth of products which you sell to the subset of products that they might be interested in. This problem isn’t to be underestimated as it typically involves moving a user from the thousands of SKUs (a stock keeping unit – in effect a single product) sold to the handful of SKUs they may be interested in. Navigation (usually rollover menus), intelligent search and smart promotions are the typical means of solving this problem.
Problem to be solved 3 – select
Make it easy for the user to browse through products and tag or mark the ones which they may be interested in, without commitment. This is most regularly solved by adding to a wish–list, storing products previously viewed and allowing for adjacent navigation (move horizontally across products without having to navigate up a level and back down a level) through breadcrumbs and facets. The facets in particular need to align exactly with the customer’s decision–making thought process and selection priorities.
Problem to be solved 4 – compare
As we move towards the business end, the user gets interested in the detail. They want to know exactly the difference between two shirts, two phones or two supplements. In the example of the shirt they want to know the fit, the colour, the collar type, the cuff shape and the fabric and if they are offered choice they want to know exactly the difference in the options. For this the interface needs to make comparison easy and needs to offer significant levels of detail on the product display page.
Problem to be solved 5 – decide
Once the user has made up their mind, they want to be clear about exactly what they are buying, and so the system must display product, sizes and other options, price, postage options and everything to do with the purchase to give the user full confidence in what is going on.
Problem to be solved 6 – checkout
The user’s main problem in this phase is that they are emotionally committed to purchasing the order and they just want out the far side of the site! Where previous problems involved the user being considered and deliberate, when it comes to check out the user wants to complete as quickly as possible and get on with their life. The system can solve this problem by isolating the checkout, asking for only essential fields, following established patterns, making login easy for the return visitor and giving a clear sense of progress.
Problem to be solved 7 – fulfil
The user wants the order to arrive, yesterday! The laws of time and space dictate that there is no solution to this but that the next best thing is keeping the user informed of delivery time and date, allowing them to change it if necessary.
As a user moves through an e–commerce website, they don’t think consciously about what phase they are in or about what their problem is – they simply move through the site with the same level of concentration they might apply to sending a text or posting on Facebook. And by constantly solving problems in the moment, UX can provide e–commerce customers with a similarly straightforward experience.
This may appear common–sense, and it possibly is. The challenge that leaves UX professionals is that 60% of the reasons that users add to basket but don’t complete is because the first five problems they encounter on the site haven’t been adequately solved.
Can I find what I’m looking for?
Can I find something that interests me?
Do I really want this product?
Can I get it at the right price?
Can I trust this company?
Can I check out easily?