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What makes a user interface good?

April 30, 2015

At its most basic level, a good user interface is easy to use, non-intrusive and has a high conversion rate. In other words, it plays nice with both the people using it and the business behind it. Here are a few ideas we’ve discovered during our time designing interfaces and experiences for clients. We continue to learn about what makes user interfaces (and user experiences, but that’s another story) good by applying them to our projects and observing the results. After all, you can only improve what you can observe and measure.

The samples below represent a very small section of what we’ve learned – we’re constantly adding to this list as new ideas present themselves and are tested.

  1. Use established conventions instead of reinventing the wheel.

Convention is the mother of consistency. If you keep things similar across an interface, people won’t have to struggle as hard and it decreases the learning curve. Because of established UI conventions we learn to close screen windows in the upper right hand corner (more often than not), or expect a certain look from our icons. Of course there will be times when a convention  no longer serves its purpose or gives way to a newer pattern. If you do decide to break with convention, make sure it’s purposefully thought out and with good intention – not just to be different for difference sake.

  1. Use Consistency instead of making people relearn.

Since we’re talking about consistency…

Having a consistent UI or is a great way to decrease the amount of learning a user has to go through as they use an interface or product. As we press buttons and shift sliders, we learn to expect how these interaction elements look and behave. Consistency solidifies the way we learn to interact and as soon as it is taken away, we are then forced back into learning mode all over again. Consistent interfaces can be achieved through a wide range of things such as: colors, directions, behaviors, positioning, size, shape, and labeling.

  1. Use recognition instead of recall.

This is a classic principle of design tied strongly to the psychology that suggests that it is easier to recognize something existing, as opposed to having to recall it purely from one’s own memory. Recognition relies on some kind of cue or hint, which help us by recalling a past experience. Recall requires us mine the depths of our memory on our own. This is the reason multiple-choice questions on exams are faster to complete than open ended ones. Give your users the ability to recognize items that they have been exposed to before, instead of expecting   them to remember everything on their own. For example, if you wanted to ask a customer which of the products they’ve purchased they enjoyed the most, don’t present them with a    question “Which of our products have your most enjoyed recently?” and a blank text field. Instead, show them a sample of the products they’ve recently purchased and ask: “Which of these products you’ve recently purchased have you enjoyed the most?”

  1. Use icon labels instead of just icons open for interpretation.

This was a hard lesson for me to learn personally. I love the simplicity and elegance of a clean icon without the label. And while there are a few icons that have crossed the threshold into universal understanding, the fact remains that what may seem obvious to you or even many people can be    completely misinterpreted by just as many others. Take a down arrow icon   for example. Does it mean to move something down, lower its priority, or download? Or does an “x” icon mean to delete, disable, or close? To make the icons more understandable, they can be augmented with textual labels. By           combining icons with text, you remove the ambiguity.

  1. Use “benefit buttons” instead of task based ones.

Here’s two simple buttons displayed on a webpage. One button tells you that it will “Save You Money”, while the other one asks you to “Sign Up”. I’d place my bets that the first one will have a higher chance of being acted on, as a “sign up” on its own has no inherent value to the user. Instead, a sign up process has the reputation of taking effort and is often associated with lengthy forms of some sort. Buttons that reinforce a benefit will lead to higher conversions. Alternatively, the benefit can also be placed in proximity to where the action button is located in order to remind users why they are      about to take that action. Obviously, there is still a place for task based actions buttons, but those should be reserved for interface areas that require less convincing and are more recurring in use.

This list goes on an on, including even very simple ideas like using bigger clicking areas than smaller ones, using opt-out instead of opt-in, using fewer form fields, etcetera. In a future post I will talk about how elements of a good user interface like these, make up a good user experience.

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