User interface design

At Sumavi these last few weeks we’ve been waging war on our user interface design.  Its been great, and I think we’re winning but we’ll wait to hear more from our users.  We will never be satisfied and we’ll keep looking to improve it.  So as we continue to research human computer interface design there have been a few books, quotes, and lessons I’ve picked up that I wanted to write down in one place.  Here they are in no particular order:

1.  “Perfection is reached, not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Terre des hommes)

This has been a great guideline as we’ve been looking at the interface.  We have to balance out “does it really have to be there?” with “is it obvious?” or “are common actions difficult to get to?”  With the Sumavisor its all about provisioning.  So provisioning actions and the things we want users to do (like add their picture) need to be easy to see.

2.  “People perceive more aesthetic designs to be easier to user than less-aesthetic designs — whether they are easy or not (Kurosu and Kashimura 1995).    Additionally, good aesthetics have been found to create a positive attitude toward a design, to make people more tolerant of design problems, to aid creative thinking, and to aid in problem solving (Norman, 2002)”  — From The Essential Guide to User Interface Design by Wilbert O. Galitz.

We battle this one with where we should put our time.  For example, some of our problems have been:  Do we spend time adding more functionality or do we spend  time improving the design?  Do we spend time on art, or do we say: “Good enough” and spend more time making the Sumavisor more capable.  Unfortunately, you have to do both.  However, what this quote has shown us is that we need to give more priority than we have to the design.  After all, we want people to have a positive attitude towards us :-).

3.  People are very task oriented.  One book talked about how adults, when asked to go look for something in a drawer and bring it back will find the object bring it back, but will notice little else.  So if you ask them:  “Oh, did you notice if there were any scissors in the drawer while you were there?”  Most people won’t even notice.  (Kids however, the study showed, noticed a lot more).  This shows people’s tendencies to filter everything out and focus on the task at hand.  Good design makes it easy for them to do this. Bad design frustrates people when they can’t do it.

In that sense, we’ve been asking ourselves:  Is this obvious?  It gets really hard when you’ve been doing it everyday, cause you have to step back and think:  Hmm… what would I think about this if it were the first time I had seen this.  What would I say?  Could I perform the task easily?

4.  Testing on users

We have some people that knew all about what we were doing and had seen our stuff from the beginning and all the changes.  So we asked someone to provision 2 machines.  He did it easily, but it was surprising to us to see how he did it.  It made it more apparent to us that we needed to change the design and make things more obvious.  One thing about the user tests we learned validated this statement that we read:

“In the overwhelming majority of cases, words are more meaningful to users than icons.”

Its nice to have icons too, but its hard to introduce new icons to people who have never seen them.  For example, what is a good icon to deploy or provision a machine?  We’ve made a few of them, and once you’re used to them they’re fine.  However, there is still a learning curve with icons!  So perhaps putting words by them will make more sense.  In one case, we removed our icon bar and changed it to be words with icons.

5.  According to one book, there was an IBM study that concluded: for every $1 invested in user interface design the payoff was $10-$100.

That study gives quite a big range in payoff doesn’t it?  In fact, I’m sure if you looked at the curve they were using to do the study, you might find that some investment in user interface design has $0 payoff :-).  (Or negative if the design was wrong).  It was also funny to read how many books justify the need for better human interface design.  Mostly I think they were preaching to the choir, but on the other hand, maybe they’re just trying to give ammunition to the choir for when they go out and preach the gospel of user interface design to people they’ll be armed.

6.  Some user design parts are NP-complete problems.

When we did the header for the Sumavisor, it was totally easy.  Simple node range search bar with menus to let you find the places you want.  But other parts, like the information displayed on node ranges, or individual nodes still is a huge challenge for us.  We like what we’ve done now and had to abandon some things that we did.  But I still feel like we’re looking for the solution.  I am however satisfied (for now) with what we came up with, but there’s still some work on what we’ll have to do.

7.  Working in Groups

I’ve found through this that my ideas, as good as I think they are, are always made better, or changed by talking them out with people.  On the other hand you have to admit when other people’s ideas are better than yours you need to go with them.  One issue of course was the color.  I had come up with a rainy day Portland theme, which I liked but pretty much everyone shot down in favor of a happier more trustworthy blue theme.  Finally when my wife said that the rain color looked dead and depressing I had to admit that I was probably wrong with the Portland rainy day theme for the Sumavisor.  Oh well.

The other thing that we realized is that internally, we don’t like a “big unveiling”.  So from now on we decided to talk them out and decide on things before setting out to work.  This has involved sketching and powerpoint drawings.  This can be frustrating since we’re coders and its much easier to say: Sod it!  And just edit css files.  But using this approach gets the best ideas out and gets rid of the usual slew of crappy ideas that I’m apt to have.

What have you learned about user interface design?

Comments are closed.