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An Eye-Opening Talk on UI Design

Posted by marinasum on June 4, 2009 at 9:28 AM PDT

I much enjoyed listening to Ben Galbraith of Mozilla expound on user-interface design at JavaOne yesterday afternoon. Not only is the title, Creating Compelling User Interfaces, eye-catching, the content is well supported by quotations from experts.

The Importance of UI
Galbraith started the talk with a nod to Google: "Its front page has only a simple interface [for search] and we tend to forget about the complexity underneath."

Appealing UI attracts users irrespective of the underlying code. "If you have terrible code but users like your software, that's a good scenario. The opposite isn't true, however," Galbraith said, citing examples of "highly pragmatic" yet wildly successful Facebook and MySpace, thanks to their stellar UI.

"Creating UI takes a ton of time-intensive work. It involves craftsmanship, that is, devotion to getting things right in creative acts," Galbraith continued. A case in point is the Firefox browser icon, which took the design engineer countless hours to refine.

UI advocate Alan Cooper strongly believes that craftsmanship is measured by quality, not by speed. "Best of market trumps first to market," he once said. Separately, even though some folks believe that internal applications don't merit as much attention as external ones, Galbraith disagreed because the former definitely affect employee effectiveness.

Relationship With User Expectations
"UI has to do with expectations—why people enjoy your product or not," Galbraith commented. He then played a hilarious video by comedian Louis C. K., who quipped, "Everything's amazing. Nobody's happy." Why? Despite technology advances, our expectations have grown and, if something doesn't deliver the expected result instantaneously, we hit the roof.

"Expectations are constantly on the rise and people expect software to be beautiful and to work well. The severe frustration and annoyance that users feel when [products] don't meet their expectations are irrational [yet] tangible," Galbraith pointed out.

Next comes the question: Given the diversity of the user base, how do you meet everyone's expectations? Galbraith suggested that you define the types of users you’re targeting and offered a couple of pointers—

  • Alan Cooper's book About Face 2.0 presents a framework for understanding expectations.
  • OpenHallway, the Java technology-based usability-testing tool, enables you to observe user behavior on screen—no need to involve traditional usability labs.

Aesthetics Rules
Galbraith told the audience that [human-computer interface expert] Jeff Raskin had emphasized that it's important to understand what's common to all humans." Immediately, the appeal of aesthetics ("It deeply matters to us") comes to mind.

In Galbraith's words: "In software, we tend to assume that it's all about rationalization and science. Not true." The personality and behavior of software are key. For more details on the importance of pleasing visual designs, read Stephen P. Anderson's April 21 posting, In Defense of Eye Candy.

Consider the Gmail buttons, which cost many design hours. "Also, studies have shown that you can predict the winner of elections 71 percent of the time based solely on the appearance of the candidates," said Galbraith, adding that we can't avoid bias and that "people don't really know why those judgments occur automatically and quickly." The same holds true for inanimate objects, such as automobiles and Web sites.

You can't count on a standard for software, however. Instead, Galbraith suggested an understanding of what the "fashion" is for software. Remember Jeff Raskin's belief that if your software's personality does not meet user expectations, it will "poison the performance of the entire system, however fine that system might be in its other aspects."

Other UI Factors
Here are other UI-related factors Galbraith urged the audience to consider:

  • Users like to feel in control, and they desire instant feedback from software.
  • Software should treat user input as being sacred.
  • Bear in mind the wisdom from Harvard professor Dan Ariely: "The person who chooses your default options will have a huge influence on what you wind up choosing."
  • Avoid burdening users with choices, especially ones that branch into more choices. Psychologist Barry Schwartz's remark "More choices make us less happy" describes the scenario well. In fact, people often drop out when faced with many choices, such as in a customization process. University of California-San Diego professor emeritus Donald Norman once said, "[P]roper customization comes about through combining multiple simple choices." So, streamline your software.

Sidenote: I just read a few postings in Ben Galbraith's blog. Interesting high tech- and UI-oriented musings!

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