Designing the Digital Experience: How to Use Experience Design Tools & Techniques to Build Web Sites Customers Love

Designing the Digital Experience: How to Use Experience Design Tools & Techniques to Build Web Sites Customers Love

by David Lee King

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Written for creative, tech-savvy, and business-minded individuals who want to increase the accessibility of their websites, this sensible guidebook explains the concepts behind designing experiences on the internet. From helping customers quickly find information and make their purchases to clearly communicating needs and interests, this resource will not only


Written for creative, tech-savvy, and business-minded individuals who want to increase the accessibility of their websites, this sensible guidebook explains the concepts behind designing experiences on the internet. From helping customers quickly find information and make their purchases to clearly communicating needs and interests, this resource will not only develop consumer loyalty but will encourage them to spread the word about the sites they frequent. Focusing on the three key areas of structure, community, and customers, designers will enable clients to focus on their own goals rather than on difficulties in navigating. Also included are tips on how to generate conversations with blogs, wikis, and podcasting to create a personal touch.

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Information Today, Inc.
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Designing the Digital Experience

How to Use Experience Design Tools and Techniques to Build Websites Customers Love

By David Lee King

Information Today, Inc.

Copyright © 2008 David Lee King
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-937290-81-8


Welcome to the Experience Economy

What's my daughter playing on the computer this evening? Oh, she's on the American Girl site, and she's playing Kaya's Catch of the Day. She also sent an American Girl ecard to her cousin and looked at this year's new doll. We receive American Girl catalogs and magazines in the mail and check out the latest books from the library. We even visited American Girl Place in Chicago last winter as a birthday surprise (the girls and mom watched a musical, had a tea party, and shopped, while my son and I checked out the science museum and LEGO Store).

What's going on here? Why is my daughter so into this stuff? Because American Girl is all about the experience. It focuses on the fun of exploring and living as a girl in America's past. The American Girl people are engaging their market in creative ways — specifically targeting grade school and middle school girls. They know how to delight their customers. I know — I've seen my daughter's smiles. As we continue to think about experience, let's consider the experiences of a trip to an amusement park and the purchase of a computer.

Silver Dollar City

Have you visited Silver Dollar City, a popular theme park located in Branson, Missouri? My family visits the park a couple of times every year (my parents retired in Branson, so we have an added incentive). According to its website, "Silver Dollar City ... is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the country. Travel back in time to the simplicity of 1880s America." The site elaborates even further on another page:

Silver Dollar City ... combines the wholesome family fun of a major theme park with the timeless appeal of crafts and a dedication to preserving 1880s Ozarks culture. Over 100 craftsmen are on park demonstrating glass blowing, basket weaving, blacksmithing, pottery, candy making, candle making, and many other disciplines. Packed with over 20 rides and attractions, 60 unique shops and restaurants, and 40 dazzling shows a day, Silver Dollar City truly appeals to all ages. It also hosts five major festivals per year and was named one of the Top Theme Parks in the World by the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.

Why do we go back to the park year after year? For the "experience," of course.

Besides the fun theme rides, we love the old-timey stuff! It's quite fun to watch glassblowers and ride behind a steam-powered locomotive. The shows tend to be geared toward the park's theme as well, so lots of dulcimer and fiddle music can be heard. And, of course, everyone who works there is dressed as a character from the 1880s, and some of the rides even include brief historical snippets of the Ozarks in the 1880s.

We enjoy Silver Dollar City because it provides the complete package. We aren't going to the park just to ride a roller coaster or eat kettle corn. We're paying to participate in a version of 1880s southern Missouri and to have some memorable family-oriented fun in the process. We are there for the experience.

Buying an Apple

Let's move to a completely different type of experience: buying a laptop. But not just any laptop — an Apple. I bought my first laptop last summer. (I actually purchased it to write this book.) I bought the computer online at the Apple Store. It was a breeze. Apple's site is extremely easy to use. To get to the store, I simply clicked on "Store" from the main page. Each laptop is actually displayed on the main Store page! Fantastic! Ever bought a PC? Many PC makers have a lot of different laptop models, all hidden under a variety of model names and labels. Apple makes this part easy by having just two to choose from: the MacBook and the MacBook Pro (I went with the MacBook Pro).

Next, I had to pick the screen size (easy again) and had the option to upgrade the laptop a bit (which I did). The paying part was very familiar — similar to that of other large sites, such as Again, easy as pie! This was a pleasing experience. Not once did I have to think about Apple's website, obtuse language, which oddly named laptop model I wanted, or how to work the page. Instead, I was able to think about what I wanted to do (choose and buy a laptop from Apple) the whole time.

I don't mean to evangelize for the Mac (although it's hard not to sound that way, because Apple gets many things right). But get this: I announced my purchase on my Flickr account, and I heard from other "evangelists"! Here's what some of my Flickr pals told me when I announced that I had just purchased a Mac:

• "Nice work. What are you going to do with all that free time you spent cursing?"

• "One of us, one of us! Let's all chip in for David's tattoo — neck or wrist or elsewhere?" (The words neck, wrist, and elsewhere all pointed to pictures of actual tattoos people had gotten of the Apple logo!)

• "Rock on, David! life will never be the same :)"

It's not hard to see what went on here. Apple made the purchasing process extremely easy. It provided only enough choices to make me feel as if I had a choice (desktop vs. laptop, two laptop models), and it made the checkout process easy. And, of course, Apple computers simply work. I've had no problems so far. Apple is providing a great computer, but it's also providing a great computer experience that few, if any, of its competitors match.

What Is Experience?

You have now read about a few extremely different examples of experience. What exactly is experience, and how does it relate in any way, shape, or form to the web? Let's start that discussion off by introducing you to the experience economy.

If you want a thorough introduction to the experience economy, you should read The Experience Economy: Work Is Theatre & Every Business a Stage, by B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore. In a nutshell, Pine says, "It's crucial to understand that experiences are a distinct economic offering, as distinct from services as services are from goods. Experiences result when a company uses tangible goods as props and intangible services as the stage for engaging each customer in an inherently personal way."

Pine and Gilmore's claim is that our economy is changing. People have enough money to buy whatever they want, and they don't simply want goods anymore; they can get goods anywhere. They can get service everywhere, but they don't want simply good service anymore, either. Instead, they want to go one further and buy an experience. Think about a restaurant, for example. You can go to McDonald's and buy a sandwich. Or you can go to Applebee's and buy a better, larger, tastier sandwich with better service. Or you can go to the Hard Rock Cafe, have a rock star experience, and get a meal along with it. That's buying an experience.

These experiences are often purposely designed or staged. "The experience is the marketing. The best way to market any product is with an experience so engaging that potential customers can't help but pay attention — and pay up as a result by buying that product." The goal is to stage an experience for the customer that is so engaging that people can't help but purchase it!

Digital Experience

But wait, isn't this book about designing digital experiences? Where's the connection? You can also stage and design digital experiences. Sometimes these digital experiences will take the form of interactions on or with the site or page. My interactions with Apple's website, for example, were definitely staged experiences. The website designers gave a lot of thought to what I'd do — how many choices I'd want, where I'd look, and how I would most likely click on a product. That was a staged experience.

Digital experience design also has a lot to do with being authentic online. You'll see that a full third of this book is devoted to the online community experience that many emerging social networking sites are providing, both to their customers as well as customer to customer. These sites will fail if they are perceived as inauthentic. Why? People want to connect with other real people and with companies that seem to care — about their product and about their customers.

What Experience Does for Customers

What does digital experience design do for customers, clients, or website visitors? Simply put, if it's memorable, they'll revisit. If it's easy to use, they'll use it again. If they have fun, they'll want to do it again. You should have at least three goals when designing digital experiences:

1. Help visitors think about their own stuff. They don't want to think about how many clicks it will take to get to the center of your website. They want to think about buying a laptop, connecting with Jim in Destin, or checking out that movie they heard about last week.

2. Get visitors coming back for more. Your main goal is stickiness. You want visitors staying on your site (or getting your stuff via feeds) and coming back again and again. You want them regularly visiting and interacting with each other. You want them buying stuff!

3. Turn your site into their third space. Ever heard the concept of third space? The "proliferation of BEING SPACES and BRAND SPACES ('commercial living-room-like settings in the public space, where catering and entertainment aren't just the main attraction, but are there to facilitate out-of-home, out-of-office activities like watching a movie, reading a book, meeting friends and colleagues, and so on') is making it easier than ever to leave domestic or office hassles behind." Put simply, you and I are more likely to invest our time in a website that offers entertaining and social activities — a digital space that offers an engaging experience. You want your customers to spend lots of time on your site: interacting with you and others, selling your product for you, and, of course, buying. You want your website to be a third space for your customers and your website's visitors.

Ultimate Goal

No, your ultimate goal is not to sell T-shirts (if your company sells T-shirts). No, it's not to check out books (if you're a library). It's to enchant and captivate your users. Why? Because if you can figure out how to enchant and captivate your users, then the other parts (buying and checking out) will be easy. You will have turned those customers into evangelists, and your evangelists will do much of your marketing for you.

The rest of this book explains what it means to design a digital experience. Come along for the experience!


What Is Structural Focus?

Everything has a structure. The computer I'm typing on right now has a structure — the casing, the internal parts, even the software was created or built. The creation of all that complex structure took quite a bit of planning. How is this accomplished? Well, that's what the rest of this book is about. A well-designed digital experience begins with a solid structure. That structure needs to support the site being built, it needs to work well, and it needs to stay out of the user's way; it should be invisible to the visitor.

Physical space is a great metaphor for digital space, so let's begin by discussing architecture and the structural focus that exists when building and then comparing that structure to a digital space. We'll keep it simple — because I know little about constructing a building. Let's use building a house as our example.

Planning Before Building

When a house is built, construction workers don't simply show up with their tool belts, nails, and a bunch of wood and start randomly hammering and sawing away until a house magically appears. To avoid the chaos that would surely result, architects plan and design, usually far in advance of the construction workers' arrival at the building site.

Architects design a house by creating a plan. They start by checking out the building site before the actual construction begins. They need to find out whether the ground is level or whether they'll need to bulldoze. They also need to decide whether the house will have a raised foundation, a slab foundation, or a basement. Once they have surveyed the site, they have a good understanding of the unique challenges and opportunities of the environment.

Just as a house or building can be designed to provide a great experience for the homeowner or visitor, a website can be designed to provide a useful, pleasant, entertaining, or educational experience. The process used when building a house is somewhat similar to that used when building a website.

Successful web projects don't usually start by gathering a group of coders into a room full of computers and telling them to build something. Instead, before the web developers are given the website project, a "web architect" needs to create plans for the site. Someone has to decide what the website's focus should be, what features it should have, and how it should look. The web designers are given these plans and then build the website from the plans (also called specifications).

Choosing the Building Material

Back at our house project, the building contractor has a big job: turning the architect's plans into reality. The contractor examines the plans and makes sure the features the architect created on paper actually work in the real world. The building contractor also chooses the appropriate building materials and tools needed to complete the house. The contractor might even choose the construction workers.

On the web, the building contractor for our digital space is usually a web developer or team of developers. The developer or team also needs to choose the right tools for the job. For example, the choice of coding languages needs to be appropriate for the goal of the digital application or website. Sometimes, a PERL script will achieve the best, invisible, out-of-the-way experience. Sometimes, JavaScript and XML might provide the most seamless experience.

The Infrastructure

In a house, many internal systems need to be created. For example, electricity, heating and cooling, and plumbing systems need to be added. Those systems need to "just work" for the homeowner (i.e., the end user); they need to be easy to use. No one wants to give up leisure time because an internal system keeps breaking or because it's necessary to read a thick owner's manual to figure out how to use one of the internal systems.

In a website, servers are a highly important back-end infrastructure that can make or break an experience. Are you creating a large website with an application that will have many facets and that many people will be using? If so, make sure your project web servers are robust enough to handle lots of visitors. They also need to be ready to scale up as your website becomes popular.

The Experience

Now let's shift the focus of our house analogy to creating a positive experience for the person who purchases that house. When a pleasant experience is added to the design of the house, the result (hopefully) is a happy, satisfied homeowner — one who will recommend the builder to others.

In some cases, it's OK to make the experience invisible and unobtrusive for the user. With electricity, for instance, the goal is to make sure the homeowners don't have to think about electricity. If they're flipping on a light, they just want light. They don't want to have to think about things such as breakers or which way to flip the switch; in other words, the experience should be immediately useful and usable.

Larger or commercial buildings need a logical flow in traffic areas, and the building planner needs to think about where people will go when entering the building. If a bank is being designed, a customer might want to go directly to the teller counter, so the teller needs to be immediately visible and accessible. Signage might need to be created that clearly directs the customer to different banking services. The bank customer doesn't want to have to think, "OK, I'm in the bank — where do I go now? Who's that person? Where do I deposit my money?" Customers just want to complete their bank business and get on with their lives.

Did you know that some organizations hire people to help create signage in their buildings? These people are called way finders. Way finders plan all the directional helps in a building, including where signs will be placed, what they will look like, and the size they need to be.

Just as buildings have a plan for signage, your digital space needs logical, understandable signage. That means creating helpful information architecture. The web team needs to put some serious thought into directional structures such as page naming schemes, navigational elements, and the digital pathways your visitors will take to reach your main content areas. You may need to answer questions such as these: How do visitors get from point A to point B on your website? Does it make sense? Is it easy to get there? This shouldn't be only planned from your "front door" (the main page of your website) either; these directional elements need to be considered on every section of your site. Some of your customers will use your front door, but many others will find you through a search engine or will click on an emailed link from a friend. Make sure your navigation works great on your secondary pages as well as your main page.


Excerpted from Designing the Digital Experience by David Lee King. Copyright © 2008 David Lee King. Excerpted by permission of Information Today, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

David Lee King is the digital branch and services manager at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. He is the coauthor of the “Internet Spotlight” column in Public Libraries Magazine and was named a "Mover and Shaker" by Library Journal. He lives in Topeka, Kansas.

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