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The (U)X-Factor

OK. I’ll admit it.

I watched the final of The X-Factor Australia the other night. And while the credits rolled to close another season, I began to consider the name of the show and how it relates to design.

Back in the nineties, when I was studying industrial design, my fellow students and I used the phrase “The X-Factor” a lot. It became a sort of yard-stick by which we would measure the immeasurable, delightful qualities of our designs that might put them in a league of their own: “It’s good, but does it have the X-Factor?

The successful TV franchise is, of course, based loosely upon the same premise—that amongst a sea of similar candidates, one shines above all the others. This one performer exudes some inexplicable, intangible trait that sets them apart. In the episode I saw, both finalists demonstrated perfectly good singing voices, but it was the singer who appealed most to the audience—the one with the X-Factor—who was victorious.

An illustration of a contestant on The X-Factor, singing into the microphone

What is X-Factor?

X-Factor is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as:

A variable in a situation that could have the most significant impact on the outcome; a special talent or quality 

In subtle contrast, user experience refers to:

The overall experience of a person using a product, service or system, especially in terms of how easy or pleasing it is to use.

X-Factor then, is the inexplicable thing or collection of things that provides a special quality—a “wow” factor that sets the designed solution apart from all others, often contributing to a better overall experience.

There are several examples that we used to wax lyrical about during university classes, and two I recall in particular:

  • the cassette door with a smooth eject mechanism, and
  • the interior car light that slowly faded out when you shut the door, rather than turning off.

Neither of the products with these features necessarily performed better than any other. Yet somehow they just felt like better products. The perception was that they were of higher quality—they had the X-Factor.

This perception doesn’t happen by chance. These products were designed with experience in mind. They were carefully crafted to evoke an emotional response—a pleasurable feeling when you interacted with them.

Getting Emotional

A person’s decision about whether a product has the X-Factor—that thing you can’t quite put your finger on—is entirely emotional. Designing this kind of delight and desirability into a product, site or system is therefore no mean feat.

It is achievable, however, if we recognise the importance of first understanding the intended users of the product and then empathising with them. By doing so, we can design with these people in mind, rather than focusing purely on the mechanics of the product itself.

A collection of faces depicting different types of emotions

In the early days of design for the web, the focus was mainly on the technical aspects of a website. However, as the practice has evolved, basic functionality, reliability and usability have become expected. The relatively recent acknowledgment that there is an additional emotional design layer—one which aims to introduce some personality and help connect with users on a personal level—has helped to increase the instances of X-Factor present in digital products.

Designing the Inexplicable

In the online world, the X-Factor in a product or system can manifest itself in a number of ways. It could be something as profound as an innovative interface, a humorous piece of microcopy or a simple function that works beautifully well.

Alternatively, it might be something less tangible: a delicate background image that frames the content perfectly, or a subtle transition on a hover state, for example. If you haven’t seen it before, check out the Little Big Details website for some excellent examples of user interfaces that delight and really help to blur the lines between human and machine.

More often than not, it’s a number of evocative elements working in unison that combine to deliver the X-Factor. It’s not necessarily the contestant with the best singing voice who wins the TV show, but the one who most connects on an emotional level with the general public. Votes are swayed by a number of factors, including not only their voice, but their presence, personality and heart-warming back-story. The singer deemed to have the X-Factor is the one who presents the full package.

Commercially, Apple have mastered this provision of a pleasurable, integrated customer experience across their brand. The Apple experience displays the X-Factor, and it sets them apart brilliantly. This culture of customer focus is particularly evident within their physical stores, where the combination of elements like the ability to handle the products, pay without queuing at a till and the provision of free tutoring provide a unique, enjoyable feeling that is far superior to that of any other shopping experience.

Whatever the reason for standing out, the effect that a system, site or app can have on its users can be incredibly powerful. A positive experience that results from interacting with a product or system is hugely influential in creating a feeling of superior quality—even if it’s not necessarily true. And that’s a very powerful thing!

Affinity, Awareness and Experience

Alas, there is no secret X-Factor solution—no simple formula or five-point guide for weaving lashings of lovely, flawless X-Factor into your designs. There are however, a small number of common elements that, when mixed in the right measurements can help to give you a recipe for X-Factor success.

Functionality and Reliability

This is the most fundamental element of any website, interface or system. If your product doesn’t work, or the service isn’t available, people won’t use it.

Usability

Try to keep your design as intuitive and easy to use as possible. People aren’t going to think much of your product if they can’t figure out how it works, or have to read a huge manual in order to get started using it.

Emotional Design

This is the most obvious factor to help deliver X-Factor and delight. Adding human elements such as personality, humour and surprise are a great way to invoke a positive emotional response from your users.

Engagement and Attractiveness

Aesthetics are closely related to emotional design, but worthy of its own mention. A beautiful user interface that displays great attention to detail and evokes an affinity with the users of the system is hugely important. In many cases, the first impression an interface conveys is instrumental in forming a users’ opinion of the quality of service “under the hood.”

Contextual Appropriateness

Often overlooked but enormously important is the importance of respecting the context in which your product is going to be used. While cheeky humour or large, high-quality media may be just the ticket in one situation, a more respectful interface that gets out of the way might be much more appropriate in another.

A cake demonstrating the usable, functional and reliable base, the engaging, attractive and contextually aware sponge, and the emotional appeal in the icing

Sing It For Me!

X-Factor isn’t just a cheesy TV singing contest—it’s also a goal to aim for in terms of the intangible, delightful, je ne sais quoi qualities of a design.

By being aware of the power of thoughtful, empathy-driven design, scrutinising your proposed solution, and going the extra mile to achieve the X-Factor, you’ll be making the difference between a good product and a truly great one.

Further Reading

Books

Articles

Illustration credits: Matthew Magain

Ben Tollady

Ben Tollady

Ben Tollady is co-founder and UX Director at Thirst Studios, a small close-knit user experience & web design team based in Melbourne, Australia. He’s worked in the field of user experience and interaction design for over a decade in both the UK and Australia.

Don't get him started about his background in industrial design & technology though; he'll bore you for hours about how it translates directly to the discipline of interaction design for the web.

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