Web UX: From I.M. Pei to Amazon

Posted by Taylor Haney on Tue, Sep 24, 2013

Another fantastic guest blog for our September UX and Design theme by Sean McCarthy, Director of Client Strategy at Digital Marketing NOW. Sean provides insight into artistically incorporating complex technological innovations in websites. If you are interested in guest blogging e-mail taylor [at] mitx [dot] org.

sean mccarthySean McCarthy (@SeanMcCarthy12) is Director of Client Strategy at Digital Marketing NOW, a strategy, design and marketing agency based in Cambridge, MA. He previously served as Acquisition Marketing Manager at Textbooks.com and as Client Services Manager at iProspect where he managed performance marketing and search engine optimization for clients such as Liberty Mutual, AVON, and Universal Orlando.


Being the son of an architectural engineer, I’ve always thought buildings were cool. As a young kid spending Saturdays with my dad walking around Boston and Cambridge, I thought all kids knew about flying buttresses and I.M. Pei. And while that knowledge didn’t help much in elementary school, save for the occasional science or history project, it did give me an appreciation for the combination of art and utility that the great buildings in the Boston area display.
 

Now that I work in digital media, I still don’t need to know what a flying buttress is, but I do need to incorporate complex technological innovations in an artistic way.

Here are three things I’ve learned from architecture about combining design and user experience:

1. Path to Conversion

Some of the most ornate and elaborate buildings in the world are churches, temples, and mosques, and yet their path to conversion (no pun intended) is almost always a straight line with an elevated alter. The combination of incredible design with simple purpose has tremendous effect.

Today, we often have to balance creating uber-rich experiences on desktops with bare-bones simple experiences on mobile. Speaking purely of desktop, why not combine both? There are several design trends to help you create your cathedral of a website. Thanks to the growth of web apps, people are more accustomed to app-style navigation. Simplify the navigational elements to the essentials by mimicking what an app would do. Also, utilize more search functionality. Take advantage of your user’s ability and desire to tell you what they want. It can streamline navigation and give you loads of insight into your customers. Lastly, in the push to create apps and design for mobile specifically, sometimes it’s easy to forget the large 

DMN blogcanvas we have as desktops. Take the opportunity to wow your customers by designing for the whole screen, while still making it easy, intuitive and clear how to accomplish their objectives.

2. Subtlety in Design

If you’ve ever worked in a skyscraper, then you’ve probably ridden in a high-speed elevator. If you have, then you know the feeling of then standing in an elevator that isn’t high-speed and wondering what’s taking so long. The difference can be subtle, but you feel it. The same can be said for things such as navigation on your website.

If you’ve been to Amazon.com and seen the speed at which their drop-down menu functions, then waiting for normal navigation menus to un-nest themselves becomes tedious. (Ben Kamens has a great post about how Amazon does it here.) In this instance, all Amazon is doing is making a subtle improvement to something standard, but the end result has significant impact on your user experience, ability to accomplish what you want, and potentially your perception of other websites.

3. Functional Art

West of Boston, not too far from Thoreau’s Walden Pond is Gropius House. It’s the former family home of Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus design school in Germany in the early 1900s. Gropius’s life mission was to create a new form of “total” art where high-function met high-art. There would be no separation between artist and craftsman.

In most respects, this is what we are doing today as we blend user experience and design. Websites, at their best, are highly functional works of art that aim to evoke emotion from users. While we certainly need to maintain focus on user conversion and the business side of website creation, embracing the artistry of what we do is an opportunity to create something unique and special. Being a music fan, I was recently struck by the cover story about Janelle Monae on Pitchfork here. It is a stunning example of how something that could have been just text and images on a page can become an experience.

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