The user experience is central to any online service. It should be easy, intuitive and pleasing to use; delivering a service or content without needing any specialist technical understanding. We’ve become used to well-designed, clean interfaces, with features specially curated to supposedly improve our online experience.
These features seem to change constantly, with new ones added, redundant ones taken away and existing features tweaked slightly all in the name of creating a better UX. It’s becoming more evident, however, that improving our experience is not the main motivation for these perpetual changes.
Facebook rules the roost when it comes to unannounced UX changes. Without notice it will introduce a new feature, or take away a much loved one, leading to frustrated posts from users across the globe. Its attitude seems to be ‘like it or leave it,’ with it often being painfully obvious that features are changed simply to increase money making opportunities.
Already this year we have seen auto-play video ads on our timelines; cluttering the news feed with a seemingly endless stream of cat videos, distracting from other content. Auto-play ads will be the next thing to intrude your timeline as Facebook is becoming less and less concerned about the user generated content, ironic given this was the sole focus when the platform was established.
Following Facebook’s lead, Twitter is the latest service to alter its UX. Twitter users have voiced displeasure at unsolicited tweets entering their timelines. Where once the favourite function was a tool for discretely acknowledging a tweet or bookmarking it for later, Twitter has begun to treat it more akin to a Facebook like. Your followers may now be able to see what posts you favourite, but there will be no way to predict which ones as Twitter introduces its much maligned algorithm.
But, unlike Facebook, Twitter has form for reversing controversial UX changes. Earlier this year Twitter removed its ‘block’ function, but a swift and vociferous #RestoreTheBlock campaign forced the company to quickly restore it.
Of course, like many things, this all boils down to money; Twitter is a publically traded company and as such is subject to scrutiny at board and investor level. The natural, and easiest, way to keep share prices on the up is to get advertisers on board. Last year’s addition of photos directly into users’ timelines came as a surprise to many, and it remains a bone of contention for users. But the photos are here to stay, despite what they may think.
It’s fine that services such as Facebook and Twitter want to make money, no one can begrudge them that, but the problem is that money seems to be the main driver in changes to UX for them. When a new feature launches, it rarely feels like it enhances your experience only – there’s usually a string attached. Geotag your photos? Great – now you’ll see ads for where you like to go on your holidays. Link your Spotify account and you’ll be hit with suggestions of artists ‘you might like’ but rarely do.
And this is the problem. Rather than focusing on making a nice product, that people want and choose to use, the approach seems to be wait until your users are locked and squeeze them for as much revenue as possible by giving them a product that can just about be tolerated.
Users prefer a clean, uncluttered interface and this poses a challenge for designers, but those that are truly passionate about UX will welcome this challenge. It is possible to present users with a great looking product that does not take away any functionality. Indeed, offering a full range of functions up front can confuse the user and result in them not being able to get the most from it anyway. Thoughtful design and understanding of what is intuitive for users should be at the core of everything product designers do.
So let the UX be driven by good design, not the need to drive as much revenue as possible. Make a product that people are perhaps even happy to pay for, or at least a service that they want to come back to without over-the-top advertising or sponsorship. Failing to do this could see an eventual downturn in subscribers, or it may be the case that you never get off the ground at all. We can’t all have hundreds of millions of users like the big social networks, but what users we do have we need to look after properly and ensure they keep coming back. If you don’t get the balance right, they won’t.