07/12/23 2 Minute Read

2 minute read

How user experience became integral to the world of web design

How user experience became integral to the world of web design How user experience became integral to the world of web design

User experience, or UX, is a term you’ve probably heard before. In some ways, it’s pretty self-explanatory – in a broad sense, it refers to how users feel when they’re using a product, system or service. It’s not limited to online: it could encompass anything from using a new hoover to how they feel about how they’ve been treated at the bank.

When it comes to the digital world though, user experience is almost universally used to discuss how people feel when using websites (or to a lesser extent, mobile apps). That’s a big part of why user experience, or UX, informs everything we do as a digital agency. Without it, your customers would find it difficult to use the websites we design, and the SEO work we perform would be far less effective.

But you might be surprised to learn that it wasn’t always so – user experience wasn’t always the top priority when it came to web design. Instead, in the early days, lots of websites were built with the intent of maximising revenue from advertisements, rather than providing value to the user – a trend we covered in a recent post about Google updates through the years.

So how did we get to the sophisticated, user-focused designs we use today? Let’s take a brief look at the history of UX design.

The origins of ‘UX’ as a concept for the web

The turn of the millennium - a new era for UX

The turn of the millennium - a new era for UX

Who doesn’t miss the days of flashing and scrolling text, dancing baby gifs and hot pink, wavy backgrounds with bright yellow fonts? No, really. It was great….

Back in the early 1990s, the world wide web was evolving rapidly, and with very little collective consensus or accepted ‘rules’ for how it should look or work. That meant a lot of the early content on the web was built by amateurs, often using free website builders, with no thought for design, just for establishing the creator’s online identity.

As a counterpoint to this explosion, in the 1990s, professional designers and developers were more focused on building functional websites that had relevant information. As search engines grew to become everyone’s preferred means for finding information on the internet, Search Engine Optimisation became more important than ever. However, the main trouble was that the need to satisfy search engine crawlers often overrode the needs of the people doing the searching. This led to pages written for search engines, not people, and websites designed to drive clicks and ad views, rather than sales to customers.

As websites became more sophisticated and as e-commerce developed as a driving force on the internet throughout the 1990s, designers began to focus more on user-centred design, to ensure that visitors to websites understood how to use them properly, and get the most value out of them. Designers began to focus more on how people used websites, realising that it was just as important to make website interfaces intuitive to use as it was to make them attractive to look at. Crucially, they began to think about driving sales through company websites, and the importance of enabling users to convert.

A key figure in this movement was Don Norman, who first coined the term UX in the 1980s (before ultimately going on to become a UX expert at Apple). He wanted designers to focus on the user, rather than on just creating systems. Starting in the late 1990s, Norman’s work with Jakob Nielsen on website usability heavily influenced web designers for decades afterwards on how they thought about their craft.

The turn of the millennium – a new era for UX

UX today

UX today

By the mid-2000s, the term ‘user experience’ had become widely used and designers began to consider the entire user journey, thinking about everything from navigation to accessibility to user satisfaction. (One big milestone in this evolving landscape was the publication of UX expert Steve Krug’s book Don’t Make Me Think, which emphasised the importance of simplicity and usability.)

An entire industry, separate from web design but intrinsically connected, sprung up to consistently improve the usability of websites for businesses – work which included looking for steps in the user journey that caused visitors to leave websites, as well as finding ways to simplify and improve the ways users could interact with sites, removing obstacles to visitors becoming customers.

By the 2010s, the proliferation of smartphones and tablets and the shift towards mobile browsing made UX even more important. It was crucial for web designers to build websites that worked for any device, as they never knew what size screen a visitor was likely to use. Not only did designers have to ensure that their designs would work on any screen, but also they had to work using any input method – touch screen, mouse, or keyboard.

Just as importantly, Google began to prioritise websites that worked on mobile just as well as on desktop – and how quickly those sites could load. Ignoring UX became riskier than ever – it meant you stood a good chance of losing traffic and as a result, losing sales.

UX today

These days, UX is baked into the whole process. At 21Digital for example, we consider the user at every stage; from scoping, to design, to development, and even when executing SEO and PPC campaigns. UX now forms a key part of Google’s algorithm, which prioritises websites that load quickly and work seamlessly on any device.

As a result of this focus on user experience, conducting business online has become even easier than walking into a shop.

User-centric design delivers fast websites with navigation that enables users to quickly find what they need and helps them through the decision process. It also improves the number of conversions because it helps people to understand a business’s products and services, the features and benefits, builds confidence with users and encourages loyalty. A website that is easy to use is a website that customers will return to, time and time again.

There’s no question that we’ve come a long way from the days when making your cursor a magic wand that trailed snowflakes was the height of design sophistication. Any element of the design that doesn’t benefit the user in some way is an element that’s useless at best, and actively obstructive at worst. That’s why we always take the time to sit down with you and find out about your customers and your business goals here at 21Digital – it ensures that we can build you a website with flawless user experience, getting you maximum return on your investment.

With more than 20 years of experience behind us, we have a long history of helping our clients get to the top of Google, and stay there. You can find out more about our technical SEO services here, or take a look at our case studies to find just a sample of what we’ve achieved for our happy clients. Feel free to contact us on 01254 660 560, and let’s talk!


Give us a call on 01254 660 560, or email us on hello@21digital.agency and let’s talk!

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