I Can’t See the Forest Because My UI Gets in the Way

I started out expecting to write a blog on dashboards, but quickly found myself thinking in broader terms about user interfaces (UIs). Anyone that has spent just a brief amount of time in the software industry has been exposed to countless UIs. Stop and think about all of the applications and Web sites that you have experienced over your career. For me, it is easily more than 10,000. After 20-plus years, that’s a safe guess.

But, let’s step outside of “our software” and into the more esoteric realm of our day-to-day lives. We encounter many more UIs, as well. What about that microwave, coffee maker, your vehicle dashboard, credit card interface at the McBreakfast or even the security pad at the entrance to the office? They are all examples of UIs that we interact with every day.

So, let’s get it right out in the open: “The best user interface is no user interface at all.” There, I’ve said it. Now the heretical flaming can begin from the RIA pundits. I’ve heard it over and over through the years. However, it’s an interesting idea and doesn’t truly speak to an absolute magical way to control things (hint: that’s still an interface!) but to the notion of simplicity. Simplicity is the key to making a usable, understandable and productive interface.

Simplicity in navigation
I visited quite a few Web sites this weekend setting up a financial application. My goal was to download transaction histories. Almost all of the sites offered this capability, but only 50 percent of them made the operation obvious. One site really had me scratching my head about where this capability may be “hidden.” It took five minutes of clicking to find it not very useful or productive; so much so that I questioned, “Why do I continue to deal with this company?”

Respect the time your end-user is spending in your application (Web site). Make it easy for them to discover how to perform a task.

Simplicity in choice
We are productive when we are guided and given a controlled set of options. Think about buying a car. If you were presented with 15 color choices, you would immediately discard your “pet dislikes,” but it may still leave nine choices. That’s a lot of possible selection options.

However, what if you were presented choices in a tiered approach: No.1) Black, Dark, Light or White? That will make choice No. 2 contain from one to three options. This is how people like to think. I find that a question with more than five possible answers is overwhelming to most people. Did you ever consider why multiple-choice tests don’t typically include more than five choices?

Productivity starts to break down when too many options are presented. Remember: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

This is the reality of where the rubber meets the road in UI design. The problem comes down to a matter of productivity. If we can’t discover how to perform a task and deal with too many options at once, the interface is getting in the way.

The best interfaces are there when we need them and out of the way when we don’t. This type of predictive context is a good approach to presenting information at the time that it’s needed. The drill-down concept is a loosely based example of this idea. The information is there, easily accessible but not forced into view.

Now, all of this talk about simplicity doesn’t mean that the interface has to be a few links or a naked table on a white page. There are many immersive interfaces that are rich in graphics, media (both video and audio) and data content. It’s all about how the interface is designed and implemented. Don’t make me wait 20 seconds to load a video or prompt me for every field that needs attention. Think about how the interface is there to serve the users and respect their time. The goal is to help them accomplish the task in as little time and effort as possible. That is the true value proposition of software and typically a large basis for ROI.

Plenty of books have been written on this topic, the technologies and the study disciplines. I just wanted to share some experiences and thoughts. Simply.

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