User Experience Shape – Designing For Engagement

In the first chapter my book Designing Web Navigation, I pose the question, Why do we even need web navigation at all? Well, for one, navigation provides access to the content of a site. But more important, it’s the way that it provides access that makes navigation necessary. After all, site search also provides access to content. Why not just have site search and be done with the problem of designing and maintaining a complex navigation system?

Engagement is the answer — drawing users into your service and persuading them to take action. Here’s the example I give in my book, which includes a quote from Jared Spool:

 [Web navigation] can be a more engaging information experience than, say, just a keyword search. Usability expert Jared Spool and his colleagues found that people tend to continue shopping more often when navigating than after doing a direct keyword search:

“…Apparently, the way you get to the target content affects whether you’ll continue looking or not. We found that if the users used Search to locate their target content on the site, only 20% of them continued looking at other content after they found the target content. But if the users used the category links to find their target, 62% continued browsing the site. Users who started with the category links ended up looking at almost 10 times as many non-target content pages as those who started with Search.” (Jared Spool, “Users Continue After Category Links” (December 2001)

When browsing a web site, people seem to learn about other available content. For ecommerce sites, this could equal more sales; for a non-profit organization, it could result in more support; or for a medical information site, it could provide a deeper understanding of a disease or cure, for instance. In other words, it’s the way in which navigation systems provide access to information that is important.

People prefer information that involves sequence. They like to browse. Navigation provides a narrative for people to follow on the web. It tells a story—the story of your site. In this respect there is something both familiar and comforting about web navigation. The widespread, seemingly-natural use of navigation to access content on the web reflects its strength as a narrative device.

Echoing this sentiment in a different way, MIT fellow Michael Schrage makes an explicit plea for making a distinction between engagement and user experience. He writes in his recent article “Don’t Confuse Engagement with User Experience“:

Designing a great device is not the same as designing a great user experience. Designing a great user experience is not the same as designing greater engagement. While it’s completely understandable why designers, product managers and marketers might conflate them, reality suggests that a great user experience doesn’t necessarily generate engagement any more than meaningful engagement inherently assures a great user experience.”

The example he offers is the difference in engagement between Apple’s iOS and Android. The latter has been outselling the former by a ratio of 5:1 in recent times. Yet Apple sees much more engagement in ecommerce from its users – disproportionately so. Adobe digital magazine downloads, for example, sold 3% via Android while 97% went to iOS.

The dynamics going on here seem to go beyond good (or bad) UI design or even providing a good user experience. Schrage concludes:

When engagement is treated like a UX feature or function instead of a defining sensibility, you get less of it. At risk of sounding “meta,” one of the great design challenges innovators increasingly confront in increasingly competitive markets is how to get their best people to engage around engagement. You need to devote as much creativity and ingenuity around designing for engagement as you do for the entire user experience.

UX Shape *

So, how do we approach this phenomenon within the context of UX design? I’d like to propose a term to describe a combination of multiple facets at play here: UX Shape.

When designing for engagement, it’s not just about a UI with good task efficiency or even providing an emotionally positive experience. We need to look at the whole picture, the entire shape of the user experience.

Storytelling is a good analogy to describe UX Shape, as I suggest in the quote from my book, above. Web navigation tells a different story than site search; iOS provides a different narrative to follow than Android. As a result, the type and level of engagement is different in each case.

Admittedly, my formulation of “UX Shape” is still rough. We can nonetheless consider some aspects that go into UX shape, extending beyond style, form and function. Like telling a good storytelling, I see UX Shape as a combination (but not limited to) these elements:

  • Meaning
    Just as the theme of a story is important to its narration, semantics play a role in UX shape. With web navigation, for instance, users have a wider semantic peripheral sense of what the site is about. Site search is more surgical – you’re in and out — and users are not as aware of the meaning of the whole thing. We can also think of meaning in a social sense. Apple products combine great industrial design and modern software in one experience. Compared to the open, device-independent Android OS, Apple products have a different status in contemporary culture. Designing for engagement entails the construction of meaning.
  • Flow
    A gripping plot engages. Flow is about how the elements and events unfold and in which sequence. This recalls Marshall McLuhan’s concept of “hot” and “cold” media in which sequence plays a large role. Hot media, McLuhan suggested, provide complete involvement by the user, and they do so with linear ordering. Cold media result in lower involvement for the user, who often must comprehend multiple parts simultaneously. Web navigation and Apple iOS are hot; site search and Android are cold.
  • Mode of Interaction
    In experience design, the user is the protagonist. Her mode of interaction is relevant to the UX Shape. For instance, we can talk about “sit back” and “lean forward” modes of interaction, as well as “known searches” and “exploratory searching.” So, when looking for information or a product on a website, using the web navigation over search represents a different mode of interaction.
  • Uncertainty
    Emotions play a role in UX Shape. Uncertainty drives emotions in commerce situations. Therefore talking about uncertainty rather than emotions focuses on causality. Like conflict in a good story, uncertainty creates tension and release in UX Shape. Understanding uncertainty and how it affects emotions allows designers to craft the overall UX Shape with intent. For instance, site navigation provides confidence while looking for products online (assuming good information scent). And Apple has dumbed things down sufficiently to eliminate uncertainty in use and experience. 
  • Framing Factors
    “Framing” is the difference in saying “75% fat free” rather than “contains 25% fat.” These two messages are framed differently. In our iOS v. Android example, price and spending play a role in framing Apple’s higher engagement. With Apple, people are already conditioned to have their credit cards ready for extras (like buying a VGA adaptor for $30), and they expect apps to cost something, even if minimal. With Google, our experience is framed by everything being free.

To reiterate, it’s important to consider these factors together, as a type of gestalt effect.

“Engagement” rather than “experience” re-frames how we design for customers. Bruce Nussbaum, professor and author on design and innovation, notes this shift in his article “How to Find and Amplify Creativity”. He writes:

User experience (UX) was a bold concept in its day and moved us away from merely meeting “needs”. But it is obsolete. People today participate with companies in the design and purchase of products. “Experience” is too passive a term to describe the relationship. User engagement (UE) is the new creative competence for the future. Think about aura — the things that beckon you and keep you interested — and design it into your products and services as Apple and Nike have done.

In designing a UX shape for engagement, then, the task is to identify the aspects that will articulate a given shape. These are likely to be unique for each situation but can be categorized by the above factors. Find the common patterns for the product or service you’re working in and support these in your design. It’s not only about meeting expectations, but also creating them.


* NOTE: I’ve borrowed and adapted the term “UX Shape” from Andrew Dillon & Misha Vaughan’s concept of “Information Shape.” I fully acknowledge their work in my book and in the context of this post. For more, see their article on information shape: Andrew Dillon & Misha Vaughan, “It’s the Journey and the Destination: Shape and the Emergent Property of Genre in Evaluating Digital Documents” New Review of Multimedia and Hypermedia 3 (1997): 91-106.

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Experience at MURAL

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