Open up a random webpage or app. One of the famous ones, maybe Gmail or Twitter, or the omnipresent Instagram. Now, put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s never used one of these sites or apps before. How do you send a tweet? What about composing an Instagram post? How do you create a new email? Is the user interface what it should be?
User Interface – the point of interaction
It’s not obvious, is it? I mean, in some cases, it’s really, really not obvious. The user interface is the point at which the software developer and the actual person in the street interact. Not directly, obviously, but through the medium of the software you’ve created, and how those people — not software developers nor IT experts — use your software could well define your career and your future prospects.
In other words, the UI — the User Interface — has to be right. Those three examples — Gmail, Twitter, and Instagram — are certainly not the worst examples I could have picked, but they are representative of a general design malaise when it comes to making software easy and simple to use. Part of the problem is that we all have very high-quality, ultra-hi-def screens sitting in the pockets of our jeans these days, so naturally, app designers and software developers want to make their end product look good on those screens.
Where design comes into your user interface
That’s where design comes in, but a compounding problem is the sheer number of apps and programmes now competing for our attention as users. Design has long been a strong differentiator when it comes to creating appeal for a product or service, so naturally one of the first recourses is to make everything look slick and shiny.
The trouble is that slick and shiny don’t always, or even often, make for a process of interaction that makes instant and straightforward sense to the end-user. Google, Twitter, and Instagram get away with this sort of UI muddle because they’re just so big, so omnipresent, that their UI almost doesn’t matter anymore. Everyone uses them so, in the worst-case scenario, you can just ask the person next to you and they’ll probably be able to tell you how to use them.
Is that good enough, though? Or, for that matter, is it good that I — tech geek that I am, and someone who’s currently on his sixth laptop, seventh iPhone, and second smart TV — still can’t work out how to ‘re-tweet’ an Instagram post?
So, what’s to be done. Well, the first and most obvious thing is to keep your design and layout of UI simple. Put yourself in the mind of someone coming to the software for the first time, or better yet ask non-techy friends and family to do a little beta testing for you. Make things obvious — this doesn’t mean that you have to have gigantic yes/no buttons everywhere, but just do some small things such as grouping buttons and click points close to the thing that they operate.
Simplicity is king
Above all, recognise that design for design’s sake is rarely the right route to go down. Think back to the original Apple iPod. It was lauded for being a design revolution at the time, but remember that it was incredibly simple. The UI was a click wheel, a play and pause button, and the old graphical interface from the Mac II computer of the early nineties. Did those graphics look cutting edge or space-age-y? No. Did they work? Yes. Simplicity really is king.