Putting aside any jargon, or definitions, user experience is : how simple, intuitive and easy it is for a customer to use your site. In an era when we say that brands are built on experience, even user experience is no longer a hygiene factor. Indeed, it can become a great differentiator for your brand. Let me illustrate with a live example from a sector where user experience is of paramount importance - internet banking.
Our company is currently in the process of shifting our bank account from Bank A to Bank B. We still operate the account with Bank A as it has some amount of funds in it. It is problematic because Bank A offers a very bad user experience online. Nothing is intuitive, the layout is bad and I dread using it because each time I make a mistake, (and its inevitable when there are so many layers of authentication), the system locks up on me and blocks my online password or my debit card. I recognise that the user experience has been designed keeping 'security' as a paramount factor. So much so, that the design works to protect the system from fraud, and ends up protecting it from real customers. It actually is stressful to use it. Today I actually stopped a transaction in pure irritation and went to Bank B to complete it.
User experience research need not be an elaborate and long drawn out affair that delays the website design process, it can fit seamlessly into it.
We can do quick dip checks with a handful of users.
We can map the user experience of competition before designing the wireframes for our own site.
We can use a prototyping approach where we constantly keep checking the site and inputting after each iteration.
The idea is to draw inspiration from consumer insight at each stage of design, which results in the small incremental changes that make the usage experience better.
Observation is a powerful tool, but simply asking people why they feel the way they do about a certain aspect of usage, is equally powerful.
And UX design is critical for financial services, because as much as the experience of customer service, the experience of the online service can be a make or break for the customer.
Just asking a few customers when designing (or re-designing) your website, or transaction interface, can be the basis for a user experience based brand differentiation.
It's a win-win situation for everyone.