Tag Archives: user interface

Design = function + aesthetics

Ask your local programmer if he knows how to design user interfaces and invariably he’ll say he does. Go ahead, ask. I’ll wait.

You’re back? Good. Now go look at the new iPhone. Has your guy ever made anything remotely that cool? Unless you’re reading this from Cupertino, odds are he hasn’t. The UI is more beautiful and, as near as I can tell from the demo movies, more usable than any other phone or music player I’ve seen. But I wonder, how much of the perceived usability is a response to the beauty?

It’s becoming conventional wisdom that you don’t want to make the demo look done. Excessive visual polish early in the process not only limits the feedback you get to comments about the superficial details, it also suggests equally finished interaction with the system. It literally makes it look like it’s doing more than it really is doing.

I’ve avoided this problem in my career by not being very good at graphics, and avoided realizing that by not working with any real visual artists to compare my work to. Yes, I used to think I was good at it, just like every programmer. Eventually I realized that consistency and predictability were a poor subset of what an artist can add.

Now, whenever I make up a project plan, there is a task at the end for “Add Pretty”. And my name isn’t on that task.

Blinded by experience

Don Norman knows more about design than I ever will. He even “knows” a few things that aren’t even true. That’s some powerful knowing! Specifically:

You cannot successfully introduce a non-qwerty keyboard today, or reverse the window scroll bar convention, or suddenly require double-clicking on web links.

I think Don has spent too much time lately with experienced web users, and not watching people like Lou, my father-in-law. Lou is a retired printing production manager, who trained as a graphic artist and worked for several ad agencies. He got one of the first Macs so he could use PageMaker, and used Photoshop when it was still owned by Aldus.

Lou “knows” that you have to double-click things with the mouse. He has known that for over 20 years. I’ve tried to point out that you don’t have to do that on the web. He does it anyway. His current computer runs Windows 95, so if I wanted to I could set the option to use single-click select globally. I would never set that preference on his system, though. It would drive him insane.

But Microsoft did introduce the new behavior. There is a generation that has grown up using it. Could someone do the same thing with web links? They’d have to have market penetration comparable to what Microsoft had with Windows 95, but yes, they could do it.

Here’s where it gets interesting. You could reasonably support either side of this decision: There are people who “know” that you double-click everything, and people who “know” that you single-click everything. Either one will be frustrated by a system that does the opposite. But knowing that both kinds of people exist, what should we do? In the Hippocratic tradition, first do no harm.

I can’t count the number of sites I’ve seen that instruct users to “Only click the Submit button once.” Or “Please wait for the page to load.” As soon as we start warning users what they should or shouldn’t do, two things should be apparent:

  1. Users, for some reason, think that they should do the very thing we’re telling them not to do.
  2. Some of them are going to do it despite our warnings.

If we can’t prevent users from doing the “wrong” thing with our applications, we owe it to them to at least make sure that they don’t break anything when they do.