It’s all in the UI

Friday 18 February 2011

I remember someone telling me years ago when I used to work for AT&T that “You can’t mix technical with the artistic…”

This was a statement from a Technical Author who saw themselves as creative (despite having Technical in their title) and thought they knew better when it came to how to present text and pictures on a screen than a geeky programmer.

This person ended up working at Microsoft as a Human Factors Engineer so I thought she had a point. I think she ended up working on Vista so perhaps she didn’t…

From my own experiences I have always seen the way a screen looks and the way, the user interacts with it the single most important thing about good User Interface (UI) design.

I have seen many techies design screens with fields that don’t line up; meaningless field labels; odd and inconsistent behaviour when you click on something; unnecessary and over-use of colour — you name it I’ve seen it and fought it over many years.

Techy geeks should not design screens. As my TA friend said: “Leave this to the artistic”.

Many years later, through my introduction to the iPhone (a combination of curiosity and peer pressure), and me breaking away from an over-reliance on Microsoft through branching out into Java and Open Source, I was introduced to the incredibly sexy world of the MacBook Air and everything else that goes with the delights of owning a Mac.

From a machine perspective, its UI is amazing. It’s sleek, it weighs nothing, and the screen resolution is fantastic. It runs silently, its battery lasts ages etc.…

I couldn’t be happier — or could I? Well… I have one or two gripes about the software:

I have watched with interest over the past 15 years as Microsoft improved their Windows OS. I have seen many new attempts at trying to do the same thing over and over again, addressing the same problems but in a slightly better way. Trying to differentiate and standardise at the same time.

When I saw Vista the first thing I tried to do was to make my installation look like Windows 3.0. In reality, I have tried to do this with every edition of Windows that followed, be it Windows 95, Windows 97, favoriteWindows for Workgroups, NT and XP (which endefavourite).

For me though, Vista combined with the most recent version of Office went that step too far. It tried to make things so easy I couldn’t find anything. … too big a change in one release.

So now I have my Mac and this is completely different too! It’s great and has some amazingly clever and innovative features… but it’s different and sometimes not all that obvious to me…

I can see the overlaps between the Mac, Linux, Windows Vista and Windows 7 but everything is slightly different. Things don’t work the same way. My familiarity and apparent dependence on the way things used to work is making me fight against the interface.

For me, the OS UI for Vista in particular was been designed by too many people; many of the apparently ex Mac looking at some of the strikingly similar “recent innovations”.

For some of the less obvious new features, I can imagine an army of Human Factors experts, fresh from their degree courses, trying to come up with something new and to make their own stamp deliberately different.

So what’s my point?

My company — Connexica — writes business intelligence tools for the web, which are now going to be available over the Cloud. So what’s my mantra for good UI design?

I don’t let any of our techies anywhere near any screens and have been reigning in the more enthusiastic and off-the-wall creative ideas in an attempt to come up with something that feels familiar…

Something where everything has a place and those places are obvious to find.

What it really boils down to is this: “Don’t mix technical with the artistic…” and “don’t let the artistic try to be too artistic”… Plagiarism is not a crime, if done correctly it’s what we all do. We just need to plagiarise the right things! We can always call it standardisation…

Here is my formula for a perfect UI:

(Bits of Windows 3.0 + Bits of XP + Bits of Windows 7 + Bits of iPhone + bits of Android + bits of Mac OS + bits of Google + bits of Google Chrome + bits of Safari + bits of Firefox + bits of MS Office) — (anything to do with Vista that’s still in Windows 7) = “Perfect UI”

And of course, make sure you have really great graphics and screen designer(s) that don’t have big egos but really know their stuff and care about what they do. Make sure it’s them and not the techies that are involved in the standardisation the look and feel of the whole application. We do and this helps a load!

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