11 July, 2009

SEO and UX: Common Goals

SEO and UX Design

User experience, and our abilities as designers to guide and influence it positively, “starts from when you first hear about a product,” says Don Norman. And we should listen. After all, he coined “user experience design” over a decade ago.

So what does search engine optimization (SEO) have to with user experience design? If we accept Norman’s definition of user experience; everything. Often the first impression one has of a product, service, organization or person (”brand”) occurs in a search engine results page (SERP).


Why SEO and Social Media Matter to User Experience Designers

As UX designers accustomed to solving the design of a specific network node (website), we can over-focus, and forget its position and associations within the information/service network, or “market” in old world terms. Sure, web/software design itself can over-occupy our days, as it is. Plus there are marketing types for that, right? But if we ignore the larger context of our work, meaning in the larger information/service/exchange network, are we really fulfilling our User Experience Design role, or capacity?

“Always design a thing by considering it in its larger context… a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”
—Eliel Sarrinen


A few key facets of user experience design are establishing trust, relevance, and supporting ongoing confidence in our offering. Google’s page rank system exists, in a real sense, to serve these very purposes. Without getting in to the complexities of the algorithm itself, it essentially “votes” sites up or down in the SERPs for a given keyword/phrase search. So link management, and that within the context of a specific keyword space, is critical to web-based communications/software user experience design.

When we see a site well positioned in the “natural” (unpaid) search results for a search representing our particular interests, expressed by text entry, it lends credibility to it as one already “voted” up to the surface by the hypertext link network of many millions of sites. Though still tempered by lack of one’s direct experience, the credibility afforded by a positive SERPs position breeds anticipatory confidence. And such anticipation can enhance our present experience, too.

“The notion that the future can enhance the present is a wonderful and insightful concept. Very nice: ‘The latent potential of a future experience.’”
—Don Norman, on Andrä Braz’s Experience Design Manifesto


Search engine optimization is not, mainly, a visual design discipline. It is one of content and technology. So, many of us with academic and professional roots in visual design may not take to SEO right away. Some of us, however, love text and smithing it for code or content as much as we love visual design. Some even first loved the web because it is primarily a text-based medium. Those of us in the later group may have an advantage when it comes to UX design, in that our broad interests and proclivities, as well as—hopefully—abilities, lend themselves to a comprehensive approach to user experience design… is there any other kind?

“Brand is reputation, and reputation is the sum of customer experiences.”
—Josh Levine


Sites for local search/ratings, Q&A, social bookmarking, and good old fashioned blogs, forums, directories, and such, generally do quite well in search engine results. Unless one searches on an organization’s or person’s name itself, and sometimes even then, their own site is not often the first one listed. It is probably not even on the first few “pages” (screens). Often the first sites listed in the SERPs contain conversations of some sort, rather than professional publications sponsored by a business or organization. If the conversations involve you or your organization, this is your brand in its natural habitat: the brand ecosystem.

Though SEO still means optimizing code and content for a particular site or search engine, it must also be considered as just one cell, or organism, in a network of relationships mediated by social software. This is good news for those less interested in the site-specific or technical aspects of SEO. There are more ways than ever, thus need, to manage one’s “brand” online. And at a time when jobs and clients are waning, social brand/reputation management is one area of growth.

The key word in all this; trust. If we accept or apply anything but the most ethical, authentic, “white hat” approach to SEO or Online Reputation Management (ORM), we undercut the value of participating in it, therefore any investment in doing so. From myspace to twitter, people are hungry, maybe starving, for relevance and authenticity. With increasing yet often bumbling exploitation of social media by private interests, the trustworthy, truly socially-engaged enterprise is not too common. Meaning, those able to engage social groups authentically and usefully will be proportionately rewarded.

The more UX designers take their empathy for others, their facility with patterns of interaction, and their ability to gain and hold people’s trust and confidence, and lend it to efforts to improve their organization’s platform of credibility, trust, and engagement via search and social networks, for a more comprehensive approach user experience design, the better off we will all be. Some in our organizations may even see us designers anew, in light of our passion for people’s entire experience, rather than through an outdated, narrowly defined, or misunderstood definition of UX design.