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5 things to keep in mind when designing a user interface

For the last two and a half years I’ve been, essentially, an application interface designer. I’ve done my fair bit in helping define a Jabber-based instant messenger, and I’ve been responsible for the interface design of version 3, version 4 and the now in development, version 5.

So here are some points I think are absolutely essential, if you’re about to design an application interface.

1. Be involved

Don’t remove yourself from the process of developing the application. Participate and voice you’re opinion, especially when it comes to how things will actually work in the end, because you’re going to be the one making the actual visual interaction bit.

You need to understand the application in depth but also to help define it from the beginning. Remember this: when left to their own devices, programmers came up with the “web-safe” 216 color palette and CSS – two of the most horribly conceived design tools ever. Shame they didn’t have a designer around to point a few things out.

2. Know what’s standard

Some people think it’s cool to re-invent the wheel.

It’s not.

Remember Kai’s power tools for Photoshop? Those were some evil interfaces: completely incomprehensible and ultimately, an obstacle to actually using the applications. If people are used to pushing a button to call an elevator, don’t give them a sensor pad they have to do the moonwalk on in order to achieve the same objective. Just… give them a button.

So, if you know what’s standard, you can get that out of the way and go solve whatever isn’t.

3. Keep it simple…

Try to keep the interface simple: people are not going to read the help files, the FAQ and much less, the f’ing manual, so get that idea off your head. “We’ll put that in the help section” is never a good solution.

As painful as it might be, if someone doesn’t understand how to use your windows after a couple of tries, then you have to go back to the drawing board.

You shouldn’t, however, over-simplify to the point where you omit functionality. If you have some stuff you think your average user isn’t going to touch but a power-user might like, leave it there, but make it smaller and out of the way: power-users – as the definition goes – will poke at everything anyway, so they’ll get it, and if it’s not big and shiny, your run-of-the-mill user won’t get drawn to it like moths to the moon.

4. …but keep it pretty

You want to make things nice and sleek, but if your application does what others do but looks like it was made by a monkey with Parkinson’s, then people are going to prefer the one that looks like Steve Jobs might have liked it.

Once things are in place and you think functionality and ease-of-use have been maximized: glaze it. Just add that extra coat of varnish that makes people’s eyes glint. Using reflections is in at the moment, as are projected shadows, translucency and a general glassy or plastic look. We can all thank Apple for that… or curse them, it’s up to each of us.

It’s a good idea not to ignore the trends though, because people are very conditioned to respond to familiarity and in today’s world, true originality is grossly over-rated.

5. Above all, keep it consistent

Whatever you do, if you took the initial effort not to re-invent the wheel… don’t re-invent your own wheel. Choose a style and go with it. Repeat your visual cues throughout the application, don’t change shapes or colours from one window to the next, define your language and use it throughout.

Keep your headers the same, your footers the same, your buttons in the same place in every window, your font use consistent, your colour use consistent and the same goes for icon use, types of separators and aggregators, frames and so on.

Having all these things defined will help you focus on the core design of each window, improving your chances of success. It’s not easy, but it can be a lot of fun.

In closing, these are simple tips and they are certainly not new, nor are they specific to a computer application interface design. They are actually things every designer should think about when going about the task of building any sort of communication model. But I think it’s never too much to remind myself even of the most basic or apparently obvious things.

After all, if nobody ever forgot about the basics, the world would be perfect, and we’d get bored.

Have fun.

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