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Building a Positive User Experience for Association Websites

By Anthony Overkamp

Author: Danielle Cooley, UX specialist (dgcooley.com), and Jason Stone, senior vice president, digital strategy, Engage (www.engagesoftware.com)  

When most people hear the phrase “user experience,” they think of a site’s visual design – the typography, font, colors, style and other elements that are aesthetically pleasing for the visitor. While important, these items are just small pieces of the user experience, or “UX.”

For association websites, UX represents the crossroads of design, functionality and site visitor psychology – it is about the mental and physical feeling a person has when visiting and using your website. When this feeling is a good one, that’s when you best connect with visitors (members and non-members alike) and ultimately improve your bottom line.

Five Layers of Building a Positive UX

How do you ensure that your association’s website is providing a positive experience? The following are five steps to building a site with an effective UX:

  1. User Research. If you are building a house, you don’t just grab a hammer and start nailing boards together, right? So, if you are building a website, you don’t just grab your computer, keyboard and mouse and start arbitrarily writing code. Whether you are building a house or a website, you first need a solid foundation. In the realm of web design, that foundation is based on user research. From the get-go, consider your range of end users. You have members, potential members, consumers, leadership, policy makers and employees – all with their own reasons for visiting your site. Don’t assume you understand their goals, challenges and motivations. Talk to them, preferably in their own workspaces. You will be surprised by what you learn.
  2. Content Strategy. This step involves determining what, exactly, you will include on your website – features, functions, copy, images, videos, etc. What kinds of pages do you need and who is going to create them? Maintain it? Considerations here also include maintaining a consistent brand and a voice/tone that speaks to the end user. Whether evaluating existing content or planning for new (or a little of both), now is the time to closely evaluate your content to make sure it provides value to your audience.
  3. Information Architecture. Go back to the example of building a house. You know you want to build four bedrooms, but you’re not just going to stack them next to each other. You first need to think about how people move from one room to another, without stubbing their toes or getting lost. The same goes for a website. Once you know what content you plan to include, figure out your navigation structure and screen layout. Sketching out your site map will allow you to easily make changes and updates as you continue refining your design to provide a positive UX. This is another opportunity to check in with your end users. A number of techniques, including card sorting and tree testing, are helpful in creating and verifying your navigation structure.
  4. Interaction Design. This step builds on all previous steps. What kinds of controls should you use for navigation? How will visitors make selections and move from one page to another? Will there be a dropdown menu, or a set of radio buttons? You’ll also want to plan for microinteractions (like animations, “pull-to-refresh” scrolls, links that are highlighted when clicked). Although small, these elements play a large role in the overall UX and providing end user satisfaction and even delight.
  5. Visual Design. Your site’s visual design – color scheme, typography, iconography – is the final layer of the process. While some of your visual design is dictated by branding guidelines, there is typically some flexibility as you move forward. You may get caught up on your site’s look and feel early on, but it is important to define the structure, content and interactions before diving into aesthetics. A good visual design can bring all of your foundational work to life, and a bad one can negate it.

What’s Next?

Building a website with a great UX takes research, content strategy, information architecture, interaction design and visual design. Using these five layers provides you with a strong foundation to begin building your website. The next article in this two-part series will discuss how these five layers can help your site provide users with a positive UX.

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