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How to Design More Intuitive Websites & Apps

Do you want to make your website or web app more intuitive for the people who visit? If so, I’d like to introduce you to the world of Object-Oriented UX. As a UX designer at OddBird, using OOUX strategies to identify and avoid unintuitive objects has been key to our design process. A warning, though, before you continue: once you start seeing unintuitive objects, you won’t be able to unsee them!

Check out our Winging It channel for a conversation between designers and developers on intuitive web design.

Winging It episode 3: Intuitive Web Design with OOUX

I’ve been noticing unintuitive objects and working to avoid them since I first took Sophia Prater’s Object-Oriented UX Course in 2020, becoming a Certified OOUX Strategist. To understand unintuitive objects, let’s first define what objects are in a digital system.

An object in a web project is something that has structure, instances, and purpose.

Just as the structure of an object in the physical world such as a chair includes the seat, back, and legs, the structure of a digital object includes all the stuff that makes up that object. For example, on a blog, an article is an object. The structure of an article includes the author, the title, the images and text, the published date and time, the updated date and time, the category or topic, and more.

Instances are all the specific occurrences of an object. To go back to a physical object, instances of the chair object in my house would include the pink roller chair I sit in at my desk, the small chair my daughter uses in her room, the tiny chair in my daughter’s dollhouse, and each chair at the kitchen table.

Five instances of a CHAIR object in a bookshop

Instances of a digital article object on a blog could include articles like: “When to Choose a Progressive Web App,” “SQLAlchemy for Django Developers,” or “FastAPI Path Operations for Django Developers.”

Six instances of an ARTICLE object on OddBlog

The purpose of the chair object in our example from the physical world is to provide people (and dolls) a place to sit down. The purpose of the digital article object on the blog is to convey information to readers about specific topics of interest.

“All humans think in objects – designers, end-users, and those who painted the caves of Chauvet. So, as we make our user experiences more object-oriented, we also make them more intuitive.”

Sophia Prater, ooux.com

With that definition of objects in mind, let’s look at what makes a digital object unintuitive for people using the web. Though it may seem backward, looking at examples of digital objects gone wrong is a really impactful way to learn how to make them more intuitive.

There are four type of unintuitive objects: Isolated, Broken, Masked, and Shapeshifter. To find examples of these unintuitive objects, I decided to go spelunking through the website of one of my favorite places to visit – the Denver Zoo. The photography and graphic design are lovely, and what a great excuse to pore over pictures of cute animals!

Isolated Objects

Objects that are disconnected from related objects.

ANIMAL, HABITAT (where an animal lives), and DEMO (an animal demonstration event) are three essential objects at the zoo. The zoo website does include all three of these objects – ANIMAL, HABITAT, and DEMO. Hooray!

ANIMAL, HABITAT, and DEMO are three important objects at the zoo

The ANIMAL object in the digital space of the Denver Zoo’s website is perhaps the most important object! If we look at specific instances of the ANIMAL object, though, we find the first type of unintuitive object called an isolated object. For example, the African Penguin is one instance of the ANIMAL object. The Pinnacol African Penguin Point is this penguin’s HABITAT at the zoo. And Demonstration – African Penguin is the name of the penguin DEMO that zoo visitors can attend.

These three objects ANIMAL, HABITAT, and DEMO are necessarily related in the physical world, and should be related on the website as well.

However, if we look at the African Penguin in the list of all the ANIMALS or on the African Penguin detail page, there is no link to the penguin’s HABITAT and not even any mention of the penguin DEMO.

Penguin ANIMAL detail and list views with no link to the penguin HABITAT

Likewise, if we visit the Pinnacol African Penguin Point HABITAT on the website, the African Penguin ANIMAL is at least listed, but it links back to the penguin HABITAT instead of to the penguin ANIMAL. Again, there is no mention of the penguin demonstration DEMO.

Penguin HABITAT with a broken link to the penguin ANIMAL

The HABITAT is also included on the map view of the zoo. But there is no link to the African Penguin ANIMAL nor to the DEMO in this map view either.

No link to the penguin ANIMAL or the penguin DEMO on the map view

Further, the section of the site with information about the Demonstration – African Penguin DEMO – mentions the name of the HABITAT where the DEMO takes place and the name of the ANIMAL, but it doesn’t link to either.

DEMOs in a list with ANIMAL and HABITAT name, but no link to either related object

As a visitor at the zoo, I have opted to wander around and look at the physical signage hoping I won’t miss a fun event, rather than to try to piece together these unintuitive, isolated objects using the website.

To fix this isolation problem, as a designer using the OOUX method, I would define the ANIMAL, HABITAT, and DEMO objects at the very beginning of the project. I would list all of their relationships to each other in the system and prioritize the important relationships.

1 column with ANIMAL at the top followed by 2 cards that say has 1
    HABITAT that it lives in, has 0 to many DEMOS that it is featured in,
    another column with HABITAT at the top followed by 2 cards that say has 1 to
    many ANIMALS that live in it, has 0 to many DEMOS that take place at it, and
    a third column with DEMO at the top followed by 2 cards that say has 0 to
    many ANIMALS that are featured in it, has 0 to many HABITATS where it takes
    place

When designing the detail view of an ANIMAL object, I would be sure to include links to and from the HABITAT and DEMO objects to establish these high-priority relationships. I would likely even design a card view of the HABITAT and DEMO objects and nest those cards within the ANIMAL detail page.

Broken Objects

Objects that are not directly manipulatable.

A broken object is an object that isn’t directly manipulatable within a digital space.

One of my favorite things to do at the zoo is attend demonstrations like the feeding of the penguins. So DEMO is a really useful object for the zoo to include on its website. Hooray! Unfortunately, DEMO has been incorporated into the zoo’s website in a broken way.

For example, here are instances of the DEMO object in a list.

DEMO list view with no way to filter or sort

As someone who would like to attend the penguin DEMO, I want to click on an individual DEMO to see more details, like a description or a map showing the way to the location, but I can’t. There are also two different times when the penguin DEMO happens, and a variety of locations where DEMOS happen. As a person planning my visit to the zoo, it would be useful to see all the time options for one DEMO grouped together, or see only the DEMOS happening at a specific time, or all the DEMOS happening at one location. But I can’t sort or filter the DEMOS by time or location – I can’t take the actions I want to take when I encounter this DEMO object in this system. As a regular visitor to the zoo site, I would describe this experience as unintuitive.

If I were redesigning this DEMO list using the object-oriented method, again I would identify the DEMO object at the very beginning of the project and list all the actions people would like to take before designing a landing page like this or making any mockups at all.

column with DEMO at the top and six calls to action, sort and filter by
    time, filter by ANIMAL, filter by LOCATION, filter by type (animal talking,
    demonstration), share, save to My Favs or My Schedule list

That way, when it comes time to design this landing page, I could focus on laying out and styling the interactions I had already identified instead of trying to figure out what the interactions should be while designing them. Splitting up these concerns means you’re less likely to forget or leave out important interactions. You’re more likely to create a digital experience where people can easily do all the things to an object that they expect to be able to do – a more intuitive web design!

Masked Objects

Objects that are styled to look the same, but are actually different.

As a designer, I have accidentally created my share of masked objects before I learned to design in objects.

To understand masked objects, let’s go straight to an example. When creating a landing page, it can seem like a big time saver and provide a unified look if everything uses the same card style. Leaving the zoo for a moment, let’s look at the DisneyPlus landing page. Here we see several rows of rectangles that all look identical except for the specific image and title.

DisneyPlus website with rows of shows designed as identical rectangles

It is quite easy to skim. But there are arguably two separate objects here that have an identical design – a MOVIE and a TV SERIES. As a DisneyPlus web app user, I have often searched for a movie to watch with my family, clicked one of these lovely boxes, and discovered to my dismay that it wasn’t a movie, but a TV series masquerading as a movie.

One rectangle goes to a TV SERIES detail page
Another rectangle goes to a MOVIE detail page

If I were to redesign the DisneyPlus MOVIE and SERIES objects as two separate objects, I would list all of the attributes for each object, and then identify the unique and high priority attributes. For example, both a MOVIE and SERIES object have an image (with the title included), but a SERIES has seasons and episodes while a MOVIE has a total length. Even if I wanted a consistent rectangle card on my homepage, I could at least include the number of seasons on the SERIES card and the total length on the MOVIE card. To make a MOVIE and a SERIES even more instantly differentiated, I could make all MOVIE cards square and all SERIES cards rectangular.

MOVIES and SERIES arguably aren’t actually different objects in this system. They do have a large amount of the same attributes. Perhaps they are two different types of a VIDEO object. That decision is up to the UX designer – but even in that case, it would be a more intuitive experience to see a MOVIE or a SERIES tag on these cards.

Shapeshifter Objects

Objects that are styled to look different, but are actually the same.

In my experience, one of the most common reasons a website visitor will experience a site as unintuitive is due to shapeshifter objects. Not only is avoiding shapeshift objects a huge win for the user, but it can also save UX designers a lot of time creating mockups.

Let’s look again at the DEMO object on the zoo website. This object appears in at least two different list views on the website. These lists both display DEMOS, but the DEMO object looks different in each list. One list shows each DEMO title once with all the times the DEMO happens right under the title. The other list shows each DEMO title multiple times with only one of the times the DEMO happens. In the first list the times are in bold, while in the other list the times are italicized. In the first list the am and pm do not have punctuation, while in the other they do. The first list does not include the DEMO location – the other does.

Two versions of the DEMO list in which the DEMO styles shift

These are fairly minor differences. If you start to look for shapeshifters yourself, you will find much more dramatic redesigns of the same object on websites and apps for no discernable reason. Even with these small differences, as a visitor to the website it is not immediately obvious that these two lists contain instances of exactly the same DEMO object. We want our digital spaces to feel as intuitive as our physical spaces. Identifying and interacting with this DEMO object could be as intuitive as identifying and sitting down in a chair, if it looked and acted the same in every context.

Additionally, the designer of these two list views spent time redesigning the DEMO object in each context. Using OOUX, we can more efficiently identify objects upfront, design the list view, card view, and detail view for each object one time, and then use those same designs everywhere the object appears on the site.

If you’re interested in learning more about object-oriented UX, check out ooux.com. If you’d like an OOUX analysis or redesign of your website or app, please contact us for a quote. Happy object-oriented UX designing!

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