Lost In Digital Space? Why A New App Is Like Travelling

Getting around in digital space can be just as challenging as an unknown physical location; new apps or websites can overwhelm new eyes. This post will cover how experiencing new places while travelling made me a better UX designer.

Just take the metro, they said

A few weeks ago, I travelled from my hometown Budapest to bella Roma. I had visited before, but sometimes I had trouble getting around.

I’m not saying that Rome has designed an unbearably confusing public transport system. Not at all. I just do not come from there. Which made it much harder to understand a system which comes completely naturally to residents.

Take the example of using the metro.

The Termini underground station served as my base point. I was staying there where the metro lines crossed, in order to reach everything easily. When I wanted to go back from Cavour station, I asked how to quickly get to my hotel. Just take the metro, they said.

Digital Space_Metro In Rome

Problems arose, however, when I actually started doing exactly that:

  • Going underground: The lack of directions for people outside means riders don’t know if they are choosing the right entry. This would have helped because access to the platforms for the two directions separate before the entrance. Of course, I picked the wrong one.
  • Finding the information panels: I found them only after the ticket check, where I realized I was headed in the wrong direction. This meant I had to go back and use another ticket.
  • Deciphering information: As many written and visual elements cluster in one place inside the station, I wasted a lot of time trying to figure out which way to go.
  • Directions: When I finally found the right platform, the train was coming from the other direction from where I expected. Small things can disorient people in an unknown environment.

Digital Space_New York One Way

Lost in digital space

Ever opened a great looking app that seemed like just what you needed, only to realize a minute later that you’ve gotten just as lost as you would have in a totally unfamiliar place?

What do you do in a digital space? Search for familiar signs? Go back to the beginning? Seek out another way to find what you were looking for?

It’s way more important to arrive in an informative, easy-to-use environment in a foreign place.

In my city Budapest, I find every station very easily. Then again, I have lived here all my life. In Rome, I didn’t feel confident in finding my way – even though I wasn’t visiting for the first time. With a digital product, I probably would have decided to quit the app and look for another.

The more time the struggle takes, the more nervous we get, and the more likely we close the app and never return. If only we could just exit hard-to-use physical locations as easily as in digital space!

I prefer to face fewer problems both in real life and digital products. As a UX designer, I strive to create digital products without a getting-lost option.

Digital Space_This Way

Mental processing and digital journey

I did quite some research on this. I wanted to understand how to integrate the parallel between physical and digital spaces in the product design process.

Based on human experience in a city, we can better understand how we process layouts.

According to Kevin Lynch’s findings, the environmental elements describe the place which contains them. Users will understand the layout of the city by making mental maps.

To remember recognizable paths, memorable landmarks, nodes, and to create the whole image of the physical space.

Another one of my favorite authors, Yi-Fu Tuan explains in his book Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, that feelings and emotions play an important role in experiencing a place as a familiar, secure kind of space.

In both of these concepts, the users take a journey in finding their way around, be it a city or an application.

First you have to know your users’ behavior and motivations to design the right experience for them. The UI can wait for its own time.

Here at UX studio, we always put a lot of emphasis on examining and creating user journey. Keeping the main focus on the end goal, instead of on the screens and how pretty they are, serves as the core thought behind it. This tells us if the user feels comfortable and secure while using an app, or wants to quit because of the lack of “nodes”, for example.

Digital Space_Metro Commute

Checklist for designing a friendly digital space

If I think back in step-by-step detail, these solutions could have saved me time and bad feelings. This works not only while using public transportation, but also often when using digital products.

1. Create landmarks. 🏠

Memorable and recognizable spots mean security for the users as they have something to relate to. These help in navigating complex environments, making it harder to get lost. In digital space, a helpful app keeps its home-sweet-home icon in front on all the screens.

2. Give only the necessary amount of information. 📋

When the user must deal with a huge amount of detail at once, they might not remember everything and focus instead on the actual “task”. It helps to not show all possible options when most bear no relevance at a given moment. How could anyone scan through all this!?

Digital Space_Information Overload
This screen defines “too much information”.

3. Make the main piece of information quickly readable. ⏱️

When people rush, they want to just glance at the right piece of information in the right place and run to catch that metro. Simple visual elements and fewer words save time. Minimalistic arrows can also help users navigate. Learn a lot about UX writing in Kinneret Yifrah’s book about microcopy.

4. Make the rest of the information easily digestible. 💬

Of course, arrival points or activities can require a bit more thought. The right amount of explanation in the right place worded the right way can save the user. One little comment or sentence can provide assurance, like a cute system message that explains what’s happening on the journey.

Digital Space_Bebino App Screen
Bebino, an app we designed. A quick glance absorbs the main information, while the longer text communicates clearly.

5. Decision points should contain signs. ↙️

To make the journey more familiar, show the user easily understandable visual signs. They convey information and determine if the user wants to continue on their route or change direction.

Again, simple elements best show the way. Arrows, consistent usage of colors or appropriate microcopy can direct perfectly. Like for going through the checkpoints at an airport, they lead passengers to the airplane.

6. Let the user see what’s coming next. 🛣️

If the journey has well-navigated orientation, the user will always know if they have reached the beginning, middle or end of the process. Seeing the whole path ahead gives a feeling of security and awareness. Show the user where they’re headed! In a digital space, a simple progress bar on the top of the screen will show how much lies ahead to get to point “B”.

7. Create a recognizable and consistent identity. 💡

Patterns play extremely important roles in an environment. If the user recognizes something familiar in the journey, they will know they are in the right place and direction. Consistent visual elements like arrows or buttons make everything easier.

Digital Space_Trucking App Screen
We designed TurckIn, this easy-to-use app with consistent visual elements to help on each journey.

Getting the user from A to B

These thoughts on usability do not really qualify as new-fangled. For me, wayfinding and user journeys go hand-in-hand. Even though these expressions usually come up in slightly different fields of design, they bear similarities to each other. Both focus on how to bring someone from point A to B on the most delightful route possible.

Thinking of products as if they were foreign places makes understanding the user navigation experience easier. This applies to designers, product managers and anyone working on products.

Help the user find their destination. Don’t let them miss the train because they can’t decide which platform leads the right way quickly enough.

This approach has helped me become a better UX designer.

Users like and need their lives made easier. Give them the gift of doing everyday things as simply as possible, and they will thank you by using your product. And they will return.

Digital Space_The Sign Youve Been Waiting For

To learn more about how we design digital products with a user-centered approach, read our Product Design book.

Product Managers seeking help with user experience should also check out our free e-book, Product Manager’s Guide to UX Design.

Have some thoughts on the article? Make sure to leave a comment below!

Related articles:

  1. The Single Biggest Reason Most Products Fail
  2. Harness the Power of Magic Moments in Your Customer Journey Mapping
  3. Cognitive Psychology in UX – How to Use Your Short Term Memory

Need help with a well-defined, UX-related problem, with business implications? Let us run a design sprint for you!

Martina Győrffy

Designer, passionately ready to learn all the time.
Travel and coffee lover, crazy about dogs.
Just give me a puppy in a caffetteria - my mind is blown.

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