Error 404 with attitude: good UX design?

Our task this week was to undertake a competitor analysis and I decided to focus my reading on the benefits and costs of  such a review.  I began by reading the Withrow (2006) article which discussed the advantages of understanding the business context in which a product and user exist.  However, I was puzzled by the author’s suggestion that user-centred design and information architecture are separate aspects of website design:

“While user-centered design focuses on user needs/tasks, and information architecture focuses on content, these two aspects alone offer an incomplete picture. What is missing is the context: the environment in which the website or web application is used as well as the market in which it exists.”(Withrow, 2006, para. 1)

Consequently, instead of looking at the role of competitive analysis in the project management process, I decided to concentrate on clarifying my understanding of the concept of “usability”.

Usability Models

My initial interpretation of the term “usability” seemed to reflect a similarity with the marketing concept of putting the customer/user at the heart of the business process.  According to this model, the information architecture of the site should be designed so that it can be used intuitively by the user.  I was heartened to see that my interpretation of usability (or user experience/UX) is supported by Brinck et al (2002) and also by Bowles and Box (2011) who discuss its centrality at every stage of the project management process.  Garrett (2003) clarifies the issue for me with his 5 planes model:

The author argues that the user experience community was developed from two separate fields: those who approached the problem from a product (software) development perspective and those who perceived the Web from a publishing and information science perspective.  This duality of approach seems to partly explain the confusing terminology.  For example, the interchangeability of the terms usability, user experience and UX design.   By splitting each plane into a “Web as a software interface” and a “Web as a hypertext system” section, the author proposes a model which takes account of both aspects of user experience. For me, this integrated approach to designing a website is probably the most successful in terms of defining UX.  The model brought to mind a comment made by the lecturer who suggested that a website should be like a duck swimming on water; the duck appears to glide effortlessly whilst invisibly below the surface, its feet are paddling furiously…

Analysing A Website’s Usability

As part of our heuristic usability review we compared the analysis tools proposed by Bowles and Box (2011) and Userfocus (2009).  This quickly revealed that the majority of criteria could be mapped easily from one tool to the other.  However, the “accessibility” criterion was surprisingly not a distinct element of the Userfocus tool.   A team member with experience of managing assistive technology undertook additional research and was able to add key questions on accessibility to the review.  The review was undertaken using a free online tool which focussed on sight-related disabilities.  My experience of working with stroke survivors with aphasia (communication difficulties) has raised my awareness of other forms of disability which can affect access to the Web, including mobility problems, deafness and cognitive impairment.  The Web Accessibility website summarises some of the issues which designers should take account of when creating websites; this is especially important given the need for organisations to uphold the Disability Discrimination Act (1995).  However, given the constraints of this project, I feel that the questions used in our expert review will highlight the need to meet the most common accessibility standards.

Usability and Error Minimisation

My final comment in this post is related to the issue of error minimisation.  It is certainly the case that I don’t see the old-school “Error 404” message as frequently anymore.  Instead, when I do encounter a problem, I am presented with messages tailored to the website and the organisational image.  Longanecker (2012, para 1.) argues that

“the websites and apps we truly love have one thing in common: soul. They’re humanized. They have emotional intelligence designed into the user experience. And this emotional intelligence is crafted through thoughtful interaction design and feedback mechanisms built into the website.”

Hence my unashamed inclusion of the South Park Error 404 message. Although the user does not want to be confronted with an error message, good UX design ensures that the technical failure remains in keeping with the brand identity.


Bowles, C. and Box, J. 2011. Undercover user experience : learn how to do great UX work with tiny budgets, no time, and limited support. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

Brinck, T. et al. 2002. Usability for the Web: designing web sites that work. San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann

Garrett, J. J. 2003. The elements of user experience : user-centered design for the web. 2nd ed.Berkeley, CA: New Riders

Great Britain. 1995. Disability discrimination Act 1995 [online]. London:HMSO. Available at: [Accessed 17 October 2012].

Longanecker, C. 2012. Give your website soul with emotionally intelligent interactions [online]. Freiburg: Smashing Magazine. Available at: [Accessed 17 October 2012].

Travis, D. 2009. 247 Web usability guidelines [online]. London: Usefocus. Available at: [Accessed 17 October 2012]. 2012. Web accessibility: improve the Web for everyone [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 17 October 2012].

WebAIM. 2012. Welcome to WAVE [online]. Logan: WebAIM. Available at: [Accessed: 17 October 2012

Withrow, J. 2006. Competitive analysis: understanding the market context [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 17 October 2012


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