This post has two goals, to introduce the concept of user experience, and to convince you that it is important. The subliminal message is that you should hire an agency/designer/developer who understands and emphasizes user experience... or just become a UX expert... whichever sounds easier to you.
The Case for UX
One thing that makes an advertisement effective is its ability to get your attention, and keep it. Our attention is what so many companies are competing for today, and a lot of time, thought, and money goes into finding better ways to get it every day. Whether it is a billboard, newsletter, website, or social media feed, they are all competing for your attention. If you have a web site, getting users on your site is the first challenge, keeping them on your site is the next. Can you think of some web sites that you enjoy using, and some that you hate? Have you ever pulled up a site on your mobile device and then decided to just wait until you could use a desktop because the mobile site was too difficult to navigate? Most web traffic is mobile today, and that means that most of the users on your site are just a few touches away from browsing through Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, or any of the other 2 million plus apps in the app store (3 million plus if they are on Android). If users are giving up on websites because they are taking more than 3 seconds to load, you can bet they will give up on your homepage if what they can do on it is not immediately clear and intuitive. This is the role of UX in web design and development: to make your users lives easy.
User Experience (UX)
UX is a pretty broad concept. A Google search will pull up several "authorities" on UX and their respective definitions of the term. You should check those out, but the definition I will give you is as follows:
User Experience is the user's experience when they use something.
Ok, that was kind of a joke, but it is not far off. UX is not a complicated concept. How does using the product/service/whatever make you feel? What did you like? What did you dislike? Did it work the way you expected it to? The first challenge of UX is taking all of the relevant factors into consideration.
When you go to a web site, you experience more than the images, colors, and font choice. You notice the load time. For e-commerce sites, load times can have a significant effect on conversions rates. You notice what happened while the page was loading. Did you get a blank screen until everything loaded, did elements load at different times causing the interface to jump around until everything finished rendering, or did you get a loading animation and a pleasant transition into a fully rendered page? That part of the experience is not so different from opening a package, and says something to you as a user/customer about the company you are interacting with. I am always delighted when I order something that comes in well designed packaging. Likewise, I am delighted when a website provides a consistent (consistently good?) experience from the start.
So we have made it past the page load. Now we have a web page to interact with. What am I supposed to do on this site? Is the purpose immediately clear? Can I register or login? Where is the menu, and how does it work? Are the key calls to action and navigation elements easily identifiable? There are a lot of questions to be asked when assessing UX, and using best practices will go a long way in preventing issues.
Usability is part of UX, and its focus is making sure that a user understands how to use a product or service. If you are designing or developing a product or service, you put so much thought into how the customer or user will interact with your product, but nothing beats the real thing. I won't go into the details of usability testing, but if you want to know more, a great resource is Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think. Steve is a veteran of the usability industry, and his book is a great introduction.