Designing the user experience

Mark Wheatley is lead designer at Parker Software. What follows is an interview with Mark for our book, The Conversation Engine.

Why is design so important to the user experience?

A simple and engaging user interface (UI) is important in helping your customers achieve their goals. You should give the customer only what they need to achieve their specific aim in using an application or website – no more, no less.

In equipping users with a strictly slim-lined set of tools or controls, you make it easier for them to do what they need quickly and efficiently. Ultimately, overcomplicated designs distract the user and undermine their experience.

What is your design philosophy?

Consistency, consistency, consistency. It is vital that customers are given a consistent experience, whether they are using a website, interacting with software or reading offline material. Customers should be able to instantly recognise a brand as a result of consistent use of colour, font and tone of voice.

Once a brand has been established, it must not be picked apart, watered down or adjusted in anyway. I’ve seen firsthand how costly it can be for a company to bring back consistent branding once is has been broken.

That’s not to say a brand can’t develop steadily over time — it just needs to be fully researched and universally supported before adjustments can be applied to all levels of a business.

Apple is a prime example of a company that has stood unwaveringly by its branding. This brand is strong, unswerving, and well maintained across all channels.

One thing we can learn from Apple is to keep it simple. Don’t rely on your users to think too much. If an element has no reason to be there, then strip it out.

Which customer touch points of branding do you think are particularly important?

Obviously, there are the basics such as the logo, font and colour scheme of the website.  But branding is much more than that.

Like UX, branding is immersive and end to end. It also, for example, feeds into your communication with customers. As with visual design elements, communication should be kept as consistent as possible, whether this is an email, a phone call, a printed record or a social message.

A customer should be able to pick up a product, visit your website or read marketing material, and instantly recognise that they’re dealing with the same company. If you do it right then this becomes almost subliminal; the consumers just know it’s your company without conscious thinking.

How have customers’ expectations of design and branding changed over time?

Back in the day, Apple, Microsoft and more recently Google were all using skeuomorphic design in their operating systems, with elements mimicking real world objects.

For example, the simple note pad app had a curled page corner at the bottom to show the user they could click it to get a new page. Similarly, the calculator tool looked and worked like a real-world calculator. Users employed their prior knowledge to help them use new technology.

As time passed, people got more familiar with this, and no longer needed to be hand-held by the use of skeuomorphic design. They learned what the note pad app was and how to use it.

So, Apple and Microsoft changed the game with their super simple OS, presenting a clean and minimalistic environment. Take a step back and compare Windows XP to Windows 10 — it hardly looks like the same product.

We have already seen some killer design features take off. The app minimisation or ‘genie effect’ you may have witnessed when you close an app on a Mac wowed audiences when demonstrated by Steve Jobs. Everyone had to get their hands on it and experience that ‘swoosh’. It was simple, but it worked.

More recently, we are seeing the great work of Google’s material design principles; a design language that makes more liberal use of grid-based layouts and responsive animations, alongside subtle depth effects such as lighting and shadows.

Microsoft has introduced its own fluent design principles, making use of light, depth and motion.  We’re seeing a general movement towards subtle, tactile experience that delights the senses.

Ultimately, customers expect to enjoy using an OS or app — it should be fun. We all love to swipe right, right?

How can businesses improve user efficiency through design?

Digital design has a huge impact on shopping convenience, and therefore on conversion. For example, providing a clean, simple and enticing live chat button can help speed up the online purchasing process, as users are encouraged to start a chat and get answers for any questions they may have. This is far quicker than trawling through an entire site.

This notion of speed coupled with simplicity is key. Many businesses make the mistake of hoarding features just in case a customer may use it one day. It’s all too easy for a developer to pile in new features that overcomplicate the UI of a product, and slow its performance. The product and its design, over time, start to become like Frankenstein’s monster, with too many bits bolted on.

To steal a cheesy line from Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, “Your scientists [or developers in this case] were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

You mentioned live chat software — how can this affect company branding?

In basic terms, a live chat box can be visually styled to fit in with the business brand in terms of font, colour and icons.

Live chat also helps large customer service or sales teams to sing from the same hymn sheet.  With canned responses already written for frequently asked questions, agents can’t veer too far from the branded company tone.

A brand is the look and feel of a company, right down to how the team talks and interacts with its customers. Is the company fun and quirky? The chat operator should use a light-hearted chat style, and maybe throw in a few emojis. Is the company more formal? The operator should keep the language calm, succinct and to the point.

How do you think design standards will change in the future?

As designers, we all keep an eye on trends. Some come and go, and some succeed and become the norm. Amid these fluctuations, what remains important is that any design, brand or UI remains relevant and not outdated.

These are the five upcoming design trends that I’m looking out for:

  1. More mobile-first considerations in the design process and wider use of responsive design that adapts to the device.
  2. Bespoke illustrations and enhanced video content.
  3. Big, bold, beautiful typography.
  4. More subtle and tactile animation, similar to Apple’s genie effect.
  5. More confident and vibrant colour palettes. At present, too many companies are afraid of colour — minimalism doesn’t mean magnolia.

NB: This interview is only an extract from The Conversation Engine. To read the full book, download a free copy here: