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Dysfunctional Content Leads to Poor User Experience

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Recently after completing an online authorization form the vendor invited me to participate in a survey about how well the process worked. The process of completing the authorization was quick and flawless. But then came the survey. The questions were on a point scale of 1-10 without a key that explained the scale. “1” might have represented perfect, but so could “10.” While most survey’s I’ve encountered rely on “10” to represent the highest rating, I’ve also encountered some that rely on “1.” I wasn’t in the mood to guess which was true in this case, nor did I care to give inaccurate feedback, so I abandoned the survey.

The week prior, while completing handwritten forms for a bank I was forced to call customer service because the directions for the form were inadequate, and the layout was misleading. After 23 minutes on hold I was finally able to complete the form after conversing with the service rep. This wasn’t the quality of written communication that I expected from a large, national firm that depends on collecting accurate data, and it certainly wasn’t a pleasant experience. In both cases, a simple test of the content by someone who is representative of the end-user would have uncovered these flaws. These examples above are what I affectionately refer to as a “UX fail!”

"User experience encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products." — Don Norman & Jakob Nielsen

What is UX and what does it have to do with dysfunctional content?

UX is an industry abbreviation for “user experience.” As defined by Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen, the pioneers of UX research and strategy who coined the term, “User experience encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.”In the most traditional sense, this is someone who uses the brand’s product or services. But user experiences also exist beyond product interactions. When I visit a brand website to research a product, I am still interacting with that brand and having user experiences, even if I never purchase the product I came to research.

The user’s experiences determine the likelihood that he or she will purchase and continue to use the brand’s products. Positive experiences lead to continued interactions. Negative experiences lead to dissatisfaction and potential abandonment because unhappy customers won’t stick around if they have better alternatives. When a brand serves up dysfunctional content, it creates a poor user experience.

Poor content engineering can lead to UX failure if you don’t test.

Norman and Nielsen emphasize the importance of meeting the customer’s needs for a positive user experience, stating:

In both of my earlier examples the content failed because its structure didn’t allow me – the user – to engage with the content as intended. In that sense, these UX failures came from poor content engineering. The more commonly used term is “content strategy,” but after reading this post by Scott Abel I have to agree that content engineering is a more appropriate description.

Engineering content for usability is something that can be tackled by a variety of roles, depending on the type of content – by copywriters, graphic designers, UX designers, form developers and more. To be sure content has been engineered effectively, you should test new content with a sample of your users before it’s finalized. If you find yourself in a situation where testing the content with users isn’t possible, assign a team member who is familiar with your users to act as a proxy.

Unfortunately when things function as expected most people won’t consider it noteworthy, so don’t expect big kudos for doing a great job engineering content. However, users quickly notice and get frustrated when things don’t make sense. If it’s your prospective customer that has become frustrated, and your product or service is easily found elsewhere, you can kiss their business goodbye.

Moral of the story? No matter how beautiful a piece of content looks or sounds, it is a failure if it doesn’t meet user needs. Never lose sight of function when you’re deep into the details of structuring content.


This article was originally published on my previous blog,

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