UX: Strategy, Flow & Affordance

Were you aware that visitors to your library web site formulate their impressions of your site in the first 50 milliseconds of their visit. For those of us less familiar with the metric system that’s 0.05 seconds. In other words – very, very fast. Chances are it doesn’t take them much longer to react to your library or its services the first time. That first impression creates a halo effect, a cognitive bias where one’s thoughts are fueled by past impressions. That is why creating a good user experience is critical for your web site and library.

The role design plays in the user experience is the subject of a new article titled “Is Design the Preeminent Protagonist in User Experience?” Authored by Phillip Tobias and Daniel Spiegel, both of Kutztown University, in the online journal Ubiquity this article begins by exploring different definitions of user experience. The authors conclude that UX does not have a universally accepted definition. But defining UX is not the focus of their article; connecting design to UX is. They write:

There can be no doubt that one factor contributing to UX is design. By leveraging design an experience can become more engaging, invoking a much grander experience and positively influencing the user’s mental model.

The bulk of the article is devoted to three components of UX; strategy, flow and affordance. Strategy is mostly what you’d expect – devising plans and methods for achieving the desired outcome. The goal of a strategic redesign should be to capture the user’s attention, and begin to shape their conceptual model of the site or library.

For me the two new concepts in this article are flow and affordance. I can’t recall encountering them previously. Flow relates to how effectively the design takes the user through the system or experience. The authors liken it to reading a good book; if it’s well written you become completely engrossed and don’t even notice time passing. A design with good flow creates an experience that is painless even when it involves complexity. That sounds like the type of experience that would make a library better, but it’s elusive. They write “to get this experience, or flow, there needs to be some form of design, where the position of the elements constructs the optimal user experience.”

Affordance relates to the elements of an object’s design that contribute to a user’s interaction with it. On a web site affordance suggests the functionality of a button or feature in a way that meshes with a users expectations for that element. In the article a keyless remote device is offered as an example of design that effortlessly conveys what its purpose is. If you encounter a new car, perhaps a rental vehicle, you need no instructions for the keyless remote. The placement of buttons and symbols are the affordances that make it all clear.

In speaking to library colleagues about user experience I try to make the point that good UX is the result of a design process. That requires us to think carefully and purposefully about the UX we create for our community. Tobias and Spiegel reinforce this in their article when they emphasize that design directly affects user experience. If we want to make a good first impression on our users and influence their mental model we need to let design drive the user experience.

3 thoughts on “UX: Strategy, Flow & Affordance”

  1. excellent post! we’re in a current redesign of the site and i’m going to repeat this line from the post as my new mantra: “A design with good flow creates an experience that is painless even when it involves complexity.” I often state that even though we’re an academic library, which inherently equates to complexity, we don’t have to create bad/ugly user experiences. A system/site/organization can be complex under the hood, but still convey simplicity to the user.

  2. I really feel like flow is the most important element, although affordance is certainly important. I can’t tell you the number of places Ive walked in to that make it uncomfortable to get around and quite frankly if I need to have a strategy to get around I’m probably leaving… or even worse, not going in the first place.

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