I am frequently asked for advice on how best to implement a user interface, and, unless I’m very familiar with the product and its users, my answer is always, “It depends.” I know that drives people nuts, but I firmly believe that usability and user experience advice given without knowing the context can be worse than saying nothing at all.
The right user experience is the one where your target audience behaves in a way that allows your organization to achieve its goals. This blog post starts from the assumption that you have a good grasp of your goals. Given that, you need to fully understand the world in which your product operates. This will allow you to craft the optimal user experience. The following describes how you can create the framework in which this understanding is documented and drives the design process.
Step 1: Understand the Users’ World
You’re going to be making all kinds of design decisions, large and small, as you develop your product: everything from the overall flow of activity to the wording on a button. To answer the questions effectively, you need to understand:
- What do your users do in real life?
- What metaphors will they understand?
- What language do they use to describe their actions and objectives?
The goal is to align you product closely with how your target audience sees the world.
Step 2: Understand the Users’ Needs
Knowing your users’ world will lead to a better understanding of what they need. This design driver will initially lead you in one of two directions:
- Ease of use: Your design will not get in the way of the users because they know what they want and how to do it. A fighter jet cockpit is an extreme example of this. The displays frequently don’t have labels and the values are just numbers. This is not an interface for newbies.
- Ease of learning: Your design needs to hold your users by the hand and walk them through their activities. Tax software is an example of this with its numerous wizards and extensive help. Tax professionals would find that this approach would slow them down, but that’s OK. They are not the target audience.
You’ll understand your users’ needs when you can answer these questions about them with regards to your product:
- Are these required tasks?
- Are there other options besides your product?
- How much training or experience can you expect the users to have?
- How frequently will the users be executing these tasks?
For the fighter jet example:
- This is a required task for the pilots and they do not have other planes they could choose to fly.
- The pilots will have had months/years of training and many hours of hands-on experience.
- The pilots will be executing these tasks, if not on a daily basis, then many times a week.
This clearly calls for an interface that is available but does not get in the way, especially when you consider the split second decisions they’ll need to make when in combat.
Step 3: Create Effective Way Finding
Every interface with the user needs to convey the past, present, and potential future states. The users need to be know the answers to these questions:
- What did I just do?
- Where am I and what can I do now?
- Where can I go from here?
This is more than just navigational elements like menus. This includes feedback, breadcrumb trails, and other queues that allow the user to align the map they have in their head of your product with reality.
Step 4: Prevent Errors and Mitigate Consequences
Clearly, no one wants bad things to happen, but we’re dealing with humans here. The happy path, unfortunately, is not the only option. There are steps you can take, though, to minimize the sadness.
First, where you can, make errors difficult or impossible to make. The classic example is entering a phone number. Don’t tell me after I enter my phone number that it’s the wrong format and force me to go back and fix it. Take the numbers the user feeds you and format it yourself.
An easy way to prevent errors is to design for recognition rather than recall. It is harder to answer the question of who wrote Moby Dick (recall) than to answer true-or-false to whether Herman Melville wrote that book. If you have access to a piece of information that the user will need, provide it!
Second, when errors do happen, minimize their impact and make it easy to fix. Clearly state what just happened (way finding!) and make it obvious how to correct it. And always provide users an escape hatch that will take them back to the beginning or some location where they can reset their expectations.
You want to avoid having users throwing up their hands in frustration and leaving.
Step 5: Ensure Relevance
Justify every single element on every single interface. The more elements that are on a screen, the more likely the user will get confused. Your priorities should be:
- Show the user only what is needed to complete the task at hand.
- Make help available, but not in the user’s way (see Step 2).
- Eliminate or minimize everything else.
This can be tough to do, especially when organizational politics dictates what goes on a screen. You can, however, clearly frame out the area where the user interacts with your product, shunting the irrelevant elements to the periphery.
Step 6: Be Consistent
This is harder than you would think. It requires attention to detail across four areas:
- Design: If two things are the same, make them exactly the same. If they are different, make them obviously different. Do not make your users wonder either way.
- Terminology: If you haven’t already, assemble a dictionary of terms that are important to your product and make sure your entire team is familiar with it.
- Layout: Feedback, navigation, and other elements that are common across your various screens should appear in the same location on every screen. If that element does not appear for whatever reason on a screen, consider leaving that space blank so the user will intuitively know it’s not present.
- Style: Typography, colors, spacing and alignment define the look and feel of your product. Its consistent use will lead your users to be comfortable in the assumptions they make about your product while they use it, making for a more enjoyable user experience.
Orwell’s Sixth Rule
Accept these as guidelines rather than hard and fast rules. The last of George Orwell’s Rules for Writing should always apply: “Violate any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”