Those who have worked on a user facing application will understand one of the larger challenges is when you have someone outside the process testing or using the application. You’ll watch them, clicking or tapping: exploring the twisty corridors of the user interface. Things might seem fine until you watch them do something you didn’t expect they would try. Why are they interacting with that? Don’t they know that only moves horizontally? You might feel obliged to speak out and mention they need to do something else. Maybe you do. After that, the assumption usually is that you must have not addressed that use case or made something visually apparent. Most of the time those in that position assume that, because the user is not interacting in the same patterns as the user interface was designed to read, it must mean that interface is wrong. I’d like to explore the possibility that they might be wrong.
An important pillar of interface design is to bridge the gap between the information that needs to be displayed and the path the user needs to take to interact or direct this information. You’ll find tasks that are measured to be more important to the general user are designed to be more prominent. Organization is important too. The interface to connect to a WiFi network will want to have connect/disconnect buttons nearby the network name so to convey to the user that the button works on the network it is near. But, despite all these rules people tend to follow and all the feedback taken from users to gauge how the application should interact, is it taken into account that the user might be wrong?
Now, you might think at this point I’ve gone off the deep end by suggesting such a thing: most applications are made by businesses, who naturally realize they need to make users want to use their application enough to pay them for it or a service. If they do not have something a user will understand how to use, the business is in trouble. This is a necessary direction to go most of the time, but if you want to disrupt the norm or are idealistic about human-computer interaction, this is another side to consider.
The reason the user may be “wrong” is that the user will only be able to understand interface elements they have seen before. This explains why many full-featured designs aim to take cues from nature: something almost everyone will experience in some way. If you build a new kind of interaction or one they are not familiar with, they will exhibit the confusion that is normally viewed as a negative reflection on the user interface. Most of the time, new interface elements are tackled in better designed interfaces by having some interface “guides” point or demonstrate to the user to how they can interact. Does this mean every interface element needs to understand how to promote itself for when someone hasn’t seen an interface before? Going down that route is a complex effort that could cause more problems with interaction if not taken in smaller doses. How do you decide what is the “right” way to do something? Is it the way the most number of people will expect, is it a platform expectation, is it something you think makes sense in context, or is it based on other interaction patterns being used throughout you application? Some of the ways just mentioned will be the same thing, but sometimes they are not.
Now, if you aren’t examining what the user is expecting to make interface decisions, how do you decide how to design the user interface? I’m not sure I have a good answer to that question, but let’s look at how some have dealt with these kinds of problems. Microsoft has recently spent a lot of time of designing interfaces. Microsoft spent a lot of time trying to make a touch interface on Windows work and was initially met with lots of upset users. Does that mean their design was wrong? They seem to think they mostly weren’t wrong as their next interface revision has kept most of the design changes around in some fashion. Users are also complaining less about the design. As I have worked on some user facing applications myself, I’ve made decisions on an interface that seemed to make sense to me only to have other people say it didn’t work as they expected. Upon testing things myself, I can see reasons for doing both interfaces.
To swipe or not to swipe…
It is beginning to sound like interface design is near impossible to get right, as people will only consider the design “good” if they already know of it or is close enough to something they know. Is “good” interface design really so malleable or is there such a thing as absolute “good” interface elements?
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