What it is: User interface design is meant to allow users to control a device simply and easily.
When people can’t figure out how something works, they often blame themselves for not being smart enough. However in most cases, the real problem is that the user interface is poorly designed. Too often, tech-savvy users such as engineers and programmers create user interfaces for their convenience, which often requires possessing the knowledge that they have. If you don’t possess this knowledge, then the solution is to read thick user manuals or take training classes so you can use what should be easy and obvious in the first place.
For a simple example of poor user interface design, just look at how the brake and accelerator pedals in a car are placed side by side and work exactly the same way by pressing down on them with your foot. The reason this is a problem is that it’s easy to put your foot on the wrong pedal and press down, which is why you periodically hear of senior citizens plowing into a crowd of people and speeding up because they’re pressing on the accelerator while thinking they’re pressing on the brake.
By making the brake and accelerator feel the same and work the same, it’s easy to mistake the two and create a fatal accident. That’s a clear example of poor user interface design, but it’s something everyone accepts simply because they don’t think it should be designed otherwise. That means we’re stuck with poor user interface design in our cars that periodically kill people.
In the computer world, user interface design flaws are rarely fatal, but can be frustrating and annoying just the same. Microsoft recognized that Windows was too complicated for most people to use, so what was their solution? Add a layer of additional complexity through a program called Microsoft Bob. The idea behind Microsoft Bob was to put a friendly interface on top of Windows rather than try to make Windows easier to use in the first place. Adding another layer of complexity is rarely the solution to reducing complexity in the first place, so it’s no surprise that Microsoft Bob flopped.
Microsoft tried a similar approach with Microsoft Office when they added helper icons such as a dog, a cat, or the dreaded paperclip known as Clippy. The idea was to make Office friendlier to use by having animated figures appear to give you help. Of course, a smarter approach would be to make the program easier to use in the first place. Failing that, Microsoft could have made their help system easier to navigate rather than throw an animated cartoon on the screen in hopes of making Office easier to use.
Microsoft changed the user interface of Office to display a Ribbon of icons organized in tabs. Some people like this but others don’t. One problem with the Ribbon interface is that you have to hunt around through tabs of icons to find what you need since it’s not always obvious where a particular command might be stored. For example, the Insert tab contains commands for inserting items into a Word document. However, if you want to insert a watermark, the watermark command is stored on the Design tab, not the Insert tab. So the Office Ribbon interface still isn’t as easy to use as it should be.
User interface design makes features accessible or not. Just parading a laundry list of technical specifications means nothing if you can’t use any of those features. Early smartphones crammed multiple features into their devices, but made them so clumsy to use that most people rarely used any of them. That essentially made all those technical specifications useless.
User interface design is crucial to making products accessible. Adding more features is never the answer. Designing a proper user interface is always the answer. The touch screen interface of iOS led the way to the appearance and behavior of today’s smartphones and tablets. Without this touch screen interface, people were forced to navigate their screens using trackballs or keyboards, which were much clumsier. Ideally, the user interface should melt into the background so it’s not even noticed.
When you pinch an image on a touch screen interface to zoom in or out of a picture, the user interface appears invisible because it looks like you’re directly manipulating the image yourself. That’s what a good user interface does. A bad user interface forces the user to learn the user interface and go through multiple steps to accomplish a task.
In Office 2010, you could open a document by clicking the File tab and choosing Open to display an Open dialog box. In Office 2013, Microsoft doubled those steps by forcing you to click the File tab, click Open, click Computer, and click Browse. By increasing the number of steps needed to open a document from two steps to four steps, Office 2013 makes simple tasks harder. Office 2016 has now reduced these steps to three (click the File tab, click Open, and click Browse), but three steps is still more than two steps. Poor user interface design is the hallmark of confusing, complicated programs.
So the next time you’re frustrated using a computer, chances are good the user interface is to blame. Don’t blame yourself; blame the idiots who thought adding more steps or rearranging icons somehow made the user interface more intuitive and simpler to use. Then stop suffering any more and look for alternative products that are much easier to use. You’ll be glad you did.