John Knight MBCS, of the BCS Interaction Specialist Group, looks at measuring customer engagement through good use of user experience (UX) design.

According to Econsultancy, the UK the market for user experience (UX) services, is expected to reach a value of £222 million this year. Interest in UX is driven by demand to optimise customer engagement, given that good customer experiences increase sales and retention and bad experiences lose customers.

Paul-Jervis Heath of HeadLondon notes that clients for UX projects are looking for: ‘innovative end-to-end service offerings and are increasingly aware that they need to measure the effectiveness of the services holistically as mobile, web and physical retail spaces work together in the consumers ideal world; UX provides a great way of not just delivering compelling digital services but measuring it too.’

UX is an evolution of the much older design approach of user-centred design (UCD). Both share a methodological approach that proceeds from user needs surfaced and surveyed throughout the development life cycle using prototypes and iterative usability tests of usually five to 10 users. From these shared foundations UX is more agile, widely applied and design-focused than its predecessor.

There is one other important difference; traditional UCD focuses on increasing productivity in the workplace whereas UX delivers to a different audience (potentially everyone) with more diverse needs, but most importantly involved in discretionary use.

Discretionary use means that users are not restricted to a particular system but have choice. They can choose between multiple offerings, deciding which is best for them and are active in adoption and quality of service reporting through social networking. To understand this complexity UX researchers employ a range of methods including shadowing consumers in real life and involving them in the co-design of new products and services.

Through having choice users have become more sophisticated and fickle. Once users encounter highly engaging services such as Google or the iPhone, expectations are raised. Rather than just ease of use, today’s customer needs now include emotional needs of the kind seen in brand relationships. Consumers are often expecting a ‘wow’ experience too and, instead of problems, demand individual services that seamlessly work together.

Interaction Designer Cennydd Bowles notes that: ‘After years of promise, mobile technology is finally setting the agenda for web designers, developers and users. Widespread support of CSS3, webfonts and HTML5, along with new practices like responsive design, are allowing designers to cater for increasingly diverse screen sizes, contexts of use and input methods and deliver more engaging experiences.’

Making best use of these innovations requires matching them to customer needs, not just during their first visit but on each subsequent one. This means that UX addresses a bigger design problem than socio-technical fit and optimisation; sustaining diverse and changing customer needs over time, through engagement. Coming from pedagogical theory, engagement is defined as the quality of experience with quality a variable dependent on the nature of the experience.

In other words, game engagement (e.g. fun) differs from purchase engagement (e.g. functional-emotional). Measuring engagement has become a possibility, given advances in analysing online user behaviour and new techniques in lab-based physiological and behavioural research. These advances allow researchers to measure emotional engagement and get much deeper understanding of audience preferences, for example, by using repertory grid technique rather than simply asking them to complete a task.

A popular commercial approach to lab-based research is eye-tracking. This involves testing designs with representative users, capturing their gaze patterns on a screen and then analysing what happened, sometimes interviewing the user to understand why they looked at what they did.

Jon Ward of Acuity ETS notes: ‘Eye-tracking allows us to record information at a subconscious level - where eye movements are drawn to particular locations, images, text or calls to actions - very often at a higher level of mental processing, meaning a user cannot verbalise what they did, because they don’t know they did it. We also get their conscious actions as the data can be replayed to the user later and a post review of their journey analysed.’

The results of eye-tracking includes heatspots, where gaze patterns are overlaid onto the interface to show clients where users are looking. System Concepts use a variety of techniques including mapping UX graphically.

Executive Chairman, Tom Stewart notes: ‘Mapping the experience is particularly useful for benchmarking and for exploring why different users have a different experience. We use interface quality criteria, which are relevant to the context and clients like being able to quickly and easily understand where their customer experience needs fixing.’

Alongside advances in lab methods online research enables UX researchers to gain insights into what users are actually doing with an online product or service, including their click trails and entry and exit points. Triangulating data from lab-based research, with online research, means that benchmarking is possible and the what and why of user behaviour is surfaced providing rich, valid and timely insights into consumer engagement.

A typical online study would involve 50 to 100 users who can be true intent intercepts, panels or invited. Intercepts, where actual site visitors are invited to take part in a study, mean the sample has the validity of actual site users. A range of research methods can then be used with a typical study employing questionnaires before and after the users interact with the site, either using it naturalistically or being prompted to complete tasks.

The advantage of this approach is that questions are asked in context and real-life tasks can be measured for completion, time and subjective data. In addition the larger numbers involved in this type of research make it more reliable to scale and analyse broader trends over a longer time scale than the traditional usability study. As well as online research companies are increasingly using analytics to measure engagement.

Marcos Richardson, SEO / Analytics Director at Publicis, notes: ‘A large percentage of businesses have web analytics systems running in the background pulling basic monthly topline data such as number of visitors, time on site and source of traffic, with little to no derived actions or value attached to the numbers. However, the best companies are doing truly amazing things with analytics: Amazon uses analytics to inform real-time user engagement and feedback targeted incentives based on individual session behaviour.

Google is building up a rich picture by industry type, user type, application type etc. that spans the whole world. This vast database of information can be used in seismic ways, take Google flu for example: governments can see flu break-out patterns across the world year-on-year, which informs flue jab stocks.

‘All eyes are currently on mobile and social media and the business case is simple. Social media measurement goes deeper than ever in understanding the human psyche and propensity to take action and the influencers, which define what to take action upon. Whilst mobile units significantly cut the time-to-purchase decisions for many transactions. Big efforts are being made in analytics BI systems to measure and analyse these mediums.’

In conclusion, Paul-Jervis Heath notes, ‘UX has grown quickly and it’s at a very exciting stage where engagement has moved from theory to being a measurable and business critical factor in customer satisfaction.’