Wednesday, April 25, 2012

User Interface: if it's not helping, it's hurting.

Over the years I used and built software product, I developed my own sense of what a good design is.  I won't repeat many good design tips that are available from popular websites.  Instead I wanted to share a few of my thoughts around what a good software product design should be and why good design will increasingly become more important for software products in future.

First, one of my good UI design theories:

All elements in UI should be necessary to carry out intended user story.

Another way to state this is that any UI element that is not necessary will distract user.  Therefore it will diminish the overall usability of product.  Anything that is not required to carry out intended task should be removed.

UI design at best;
click the button to get the placebo effect.
Behind this theory is the idea that product should communicate clearly what it does to all users.  With a quick scan (and research shows people scan, not read HTML pages), user should be able to figure out what the product is supposed to do.  This can only be done if product is designed to solve a specific problem that can be clearly articulated to someone on the street.

Here's why I think it's getting even more critical to do a few things and do them right.  It's because cost of building an application is dropping fast, and each application is becoming more specialized to solve a few specific problems.  Exhibit A is 500,000 available applications on Apple App Store alone.

It used to be case that users were happy to use a handful of software products installed on their personal computer.  Think back in early 1990's.  When people needed to create a spreadsheet to track P&L, they used Microsoft Excel.  When they needed a quick way to maintain list of customer contacts, they used Excel as well.  That's why over the years Excel's feature set got bloated, and added all kinds of features like graphing, pivot table, built-in functions and scripting options.

It will be silly to start using Excel for all your book keeping.  There are many other excellent tools available as SaaS and on mobile devices, often multiple purpose-built applications to solve specific problems.

With explosion of mobile applications and user's short attention span, each software product must be able to communicate clearly what it does and how it can help user solve her problem.

Any element that does not add value is adding clutter.  Avoid them like pests.

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