It’s Always About the User Experience

I recently wrote about an almost perfect example of interface design, the London Underground map. It was Harry Beck, an electrician with London Transport, who came up with the design based on an electronic circuit diagram. Part of the genius of Beck’s design is that he removed everything that was superfluous and even altered the true topography of the rail lines to make the information more visually digestible. The most important principle of design that Beck employed was thinking of the information as a user.

If you have ever been on a subway or underground railway then you know that you really have no concept of where you are going. When you look out the windows you see either blackness or tunnel walls. So there is no real relationship with where you are and what may be above you. Beck realized that the actual physical location of the stations was irrelevant to someone who just wanted to know how to get from one station to another. At some point during his design process he was able to remove himself from all the details he knew about the rail lines and concentrate on developing a map strictly from a user’s standpoint.

Good interface design always centers upon the user’s experience.

That statement is pretty obvious. But the focus on the user gets lost a lot of the time on either the drive for a particular aesthetic or the need to fulfill certain interactive functions (i.e., registering or buying something). The design process gets much more complicated when you have multiple people involved: designer, developer, programmer, DBA, security analyst, CEO! Many times the user is completely forgotten as the web application evolves and all the stakeholders and participants ensure their needs are met and make their individual contribution.

Designing for the web is all about making things as easy as possible for the end user without requiring the completion of special training or reading of instructions. I am sure we all remember ten years ago when someone would roll out a redesigned website and have a link to the “site tutorial!” That is a perfect example of disregard for user interface design in favor of making something cool (and complicated).

Web users need to be able to intuitively navigate, use and accomplish tasks on a site.

Web interface design needs to take people’s general interactions with everyday life into account. You enter an elevator and you push the button for a particular floor. You didn’t need to read instructions. You didn’t need a tutorial. Maybe the buttons look a little different from other elevators you have been in…maybe they are on a different side of the car or have a different shape. But intuitively you know that when you push the button it will light up and you will be carried to the floor you selected, and when you arrive, the button will turn off and the door will open. Users expect the same sort of intuitive experience on the web.

In the broad sense of things, web interface design should:

  • Present the information to the user in a clear and concise way.
  • Give users choices that are obvious.
  • Ensure that an expected action occurs through any action taken (clicking a button).

In theory, we will always want to engage a user focus group to evaluate anything that we are going to design, especially in the case of web applications. However, that is not always possible based on budget, time constraints, or a myriad of other business pressures. No matter how well thought out, you will always learn something about your design from a focus group that you would never have imagined. But on those occasions when a focus group is just not possible, we can take a moment and think of Harry Beck, and ensure that we have the user’s experience as our guiding design principle.

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