One simple rule for a good user interface

May 23, 2016

As most oenophiles will tell you, there is much, much more to wine than you might think. However, materials such as Robert Parker’s 100-point scale (that deems any wine under 60 points as ‘unacceptable’) act as platforms for the uninitiated to gain more of an understanding towards the complexities of wine. We are witnessing a similar trend with coffee; high-street vendors à la Starbucks and a plethora of independent roasters have seen the connoisseurship of coffee skyrocket. While some will insist that they could only drink a venti, half sweet, non-fat, Caramel Macchiato, I myself am quite content with a simple white coffee with two sugars.

Whether it’s wine or coffee, the sheer amount of variables for seemingly very little difference can seem excessive and, at times, quite overwhelming. Your average coffee or wine-drinker isn’t a connoisseur, after all. And the same principle applies to software – albeit without sparking quite so much pretentious speak.

Beware of digital overload

At its core, enterprise software should help you become a more productive worker – whether that takes the form of an automation software or mobile app. More recently, though, I have found that the modern user interface (UI) can sometimes act as a roadblock. When overloaded with unnecessary buttons, images, pages, colours and everything else, it can quickly become too much to handle – users don’t know what they can click and what they can’t.

When there’s too much going on, or too much prior knowledge is required, people just won’t bother using it – and I don’t blame them. It’s here however, where a dose of simplicity can go a very long way, especially in terms of a good user interface. Because, much like coffee and wine drinkers, your average software user isn’t a digital connoisseur.

Picture a big red button on your smartphone screen: what does your instinct tell you to do? Whether you’re 5 years old or 50, most would be able to figure out that you’re supposed to press it. It’s plain and simple. But what if, in this same scenario, it turns out you first had to swipe right, select whether you are online or offline, select your preferences, input your name, then swipe back to the left, and only then can you press the big red button. What should require one single gesture ends up taking more like 20 – a convoluted method that takes up far more of the user’s time for the exact same result.

Elementary, my dear reader

This 2009 post on minimizing complexity in a good user interface is old but still rings true – showing that the core principles of what appeals to us as users hasn’t changed.

There is an incredible amount of power behind achieving a good user interface. Take Apple, for instance, who first championed the curved-edge, flat-design style with varying levels of translucency that is now commonplace in many websites and applications. What was it about Apple’s design choice that caused it to become so popular?

“The real problem with the interface is that it is an interface. Interfaces get in the way. I don’t want to focus my energies on an interface, I want to focus on the job”

Donald Norman, The Art of Human-Computer Design.

While I can’t agree that no interface is the best way to go in today’s world, Norman’s prioritising of “job over interface” holds a lot of merit. Software is complicated enough without stacking features on top of each other, and overly-complicated UIs can create additional steps that are altogether unnecessary in some cases – taking up your time that should instead be spent on doing your job.

‘Clarity’ consistently comes out as one of the top areas of need around good user interface best practice guides for reducing complexity. The problem is, interfaces are complex; the trick is directing your users through and around that complexity without them noticing.

Good user interface

Take the cockpit of a passenger plane, for example. A mass of switches, dials, joysticks, levels and everything in-between. To you and I, it looks immensely complex – to the point where it’s hard to comprehend what so many interactive features can serve to do. However, we all trust pilots to fly us to holiday destinations across the world, with the utmost faith in their ability to get us from A to B. This is because they’ve been trained and taught – they have been directed through the complexities of flying a plane, so to speak.

Know what you’re getting into

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