Monday, August 4, 2008

Musings on UI Design

One of the things I have become increasingly interested in over the last year is UI (User Interface) design. As we develop our software product, how it looks and feels to the end user becomes an extremely important part of the process.

And as we are developing it using the latest Microsoft technology, it was interesting to read this interview with Jensen Harris - one of the lead designers for the new Office Ribbon UI in Office 2007. Here is a link to Jensen's blog post on the topic.

The actual presentation Jensen gave is a good watch. It's impressive to see all the data Microsoft collects go to use in the design process (what does it tell you about work habits in the 21st century when the most used function in Outlook is 'delete' - 14x greater than the next most used function, 'reply/send'?).

Having read and listened to the talk, here are my musings on the process:

1. There is no way - no trickery of layout, no fancy use of color palettes, no sophisticated code - that can really reduce the complexity of 250 separate functions in MS Word. The developers and designers are on a collision course with diminishing returns on simplicity. At some point, if a program becomes large enough, it becomes complicated.

2. The Ribbon UI - where all commands area accessed via a tab interface at the top of the page (see here) - is a useful innovation for the 'average' user. This seems to be partly the reason it was developed - to help more people use and utilize more functions. However, it's not necessarily an improvement for the 'power user'. It lets you master more functions, but doesn't allow significant depth of mastery - the kind of depth that allows you to completely customize your UI experience.

3. The most significant UI design conundrum is designing for both the 'average' and 'power' user.

4. Don't be afraid to give the user 2 or even 3 ways to access the same function. They will figure out the way that suits them the best. Everyone is different.

5. Don't give the user 2 or 3 ways to access EVERY function - they will come for your head. The art in UI design, like all good creative endeavors, is to know when to stop.

6. Get out of the way. Don't let the UI dominate the experience. Great UI's are like hazard lights on a car. You should never notice them until you need them. And they provide a useful function.

I don't think the Ribbon UI meets all of these challenges. It still seems bloated. But then, going back to point 1, you can't design away complexity. You can only design for it.

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