OPINION: User experience is not just about the user interface

18 Jan 2014

Gareth Dunlop, owner of user-experience consultancy Fathom

The many reasons why UX is not UI are important. While the UI circle sits inside the UX circle in the user-theory-book Venn diagram, the important subtlety that can get missed is that sometimes the ramifications of UX thinking don’t impact the interface at all.

Much user-experience thinking rightly has its natural conclusion with really well-informed design decisions which impact how a website or mobile application looks, feels and operates. However, we ignore the impact of UX on our back-end and legacy systems to the chagrin of our users and at our own peril.

In the halcyon web days of the late 1990s, the story is told of Willie Walsh, then-CEO of Aer Lingus, remonstrating with his board to overhaul the airline’s legacy systems to make them fit-for-web-purpose. He was demanding that the mainframe technology, which for decades ran the Aer Lingus booking system, be rewritten to allow for what was then a new concept. What was this radical new concept? It was the one-way flight. For decades, flights could only be booked as returns and via a travel agent. The web removed the need for the travel agent and Walsh knew his mainframe needed updating to remove the need for a mandatory return trip.

Strong leadership exemplified

Through the lens of 2014 this seems like a really obvious requirement, but at the time it took strong leadership to focus on this. Consider the forces against him. Think of the competing ways the significant budget required to overhaul legacy systems could have been used and how pretty and cool the website could have been if that budget had been spent on the front end. As it transpires, some budget was set aside to focus on the web-booking engine (another excellent UX-focused decision), but that’s a discussion for another time.

While the terms ‘UX’ and ‘UI’ were in their infancy at the time, without necessarily knowing (or caring about) the buzz terms, Walsh had the foresight to understand that no amount of UI improvements would make up for this UX fundamental.

Regularly in the course of our analysis work we see that the greatest conversion drop-off occurs when a website is linking with a third-party or back-end system. The smooth e-commerce experience starts to grind the user’s gears when the site links to a payment system. The beautiful concert-booking experience takes an ugly twist when the site links off to a box-office black-box legacy system. The swift mobile phone set-up shudders to a halt when the user needs to wait two minutes for a new number or two hours to port a number. The intranet drives the beleaguered employee to distraction when he or she needs to find a file from a document-management system.

And it is in these scenarios, where the informed marketer turns his or her thoughts not to the front end but to the back end.

Tough decisions

The challenge for UX professionals is to ensure they don’t see back-end problems as someone else’s. Often the statistics don’t give the web manager the luxury of fixating on the front end; to make interface improvements around the deathtrap legacy system is to merely skirt around the issue. Sometimes the user-focused marketer needs to make difficult decisions about their legacy IT. Or they need to move their websites to a faster hosting provider. Or they need to administer their domain names more efficiently. Boring stuff. Really important, critical, boring stuff.

Most commonly, user experience expresses itself with beautiful user interfaces and this is a good thing. However sometimes, pleasing the user is a much less glamorous task, which requires getting immersed in difficult technology challenges. And in these cases, web leadership often involves making the hard decision to roll up the sleeves and get stuck in.

Regardless of what we call the discipline and irrespective of where it leads us in terms of our project planning and decision-making, what Walsh managed in the 1990s and what the best UX professionals do in 2014 is assign priorities only after having walked a mile in the user’s shoes.

Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy which helps ambitious organisations get the most from their website and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include user testing, usability and customer journey planning, web accessibility and integrated online marketing. Clients include Fáilte Ireland, Telefónica, Invest NI, Ogilvy, and Savile Row. Visit Fathom online.

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.