The User Interface
I have been thinking more and more about user interfaces(UIs) lately. Maybe it’s the proliferation of devices in our everyday lives, but I cannot shake out of my head that individuals designing interfaces seem to shrug off the idea that there should be rules governing their choices. The two rules necessary for UIs are as follows: simplicity and accessibility.
My primary complaint is of course the world wide web, but I will touch on a few other examples later on. On the web there are many kinds of websites that people interact with daily. The most popular example is Google, which I believe is the champion of both simplicity and accessibility. When one goes to Google.com, the primary elements are the gigantic logo, the text box, and two buttons. When users search, they get a list of sites. Brilliant. The only missteps Google made in the past year were offering results as one types, which causes visual clutter and annoyance , and offering to turn off this feature only if you have a Google account and navigate through the settings. In offering simplicity, they violated the rules of accessibility (account only) and simplicity (unnecessary navigation through panels).
Blogs are another problem. Four of my most frequented blogs are on the Gawker network: io9, Kotaku, Lifehacker, and Gizmodo. The entire network underwent a redesign to the UI. Now along with the normally accessible articles in the main panel on the lower left, there are scrollable headlines in a panel on the right side of the page. This seems like a step toward accessibility, requiring overall fewer clicks to get through the content. Previously, headlines were featured on the front page, and after reading an article one would have to click back to the main page to find another article. What should have been a brilliant step toward ease of use for site visitors has been riddled with odd bugs and stupid issues. Many of their features are still not working correctly (such as the ability for members with accounts to control whether comments are featured in ascending or descending order, as well as a notification on any site’s main page informing if anyone has replied to comments left), there was a day when text content was featured scrolling under the right-hand headlines panel, there is an exceptional amount of loading now that page contents are separate elements, and the keyboard shortcuts programmed into the site are causing problems with certain blog readers, such as Google Reader (scrolling down will often switch to the next article instead of scrolling through the text in the main panel). Then, of course, there is the debatable issue of visual clutter – which can be an affront to accessibility.
Sites that violate the rules of accessibility and simplicity as a matter of course tend to be ignored by me. Take UGO and BuddyTV for example. First, if a site regularly features content that comes in list form, you are not getting creative content from them unless they are really clever (like Cracked). Second, if every item on the list gets its own page that must be clicked through to reach the next item, you are being played. Most people know that these sites receive funding through the ads featured on their pages. They receive payments both for those ads being clicked and for those ads simply being viewed. Lists that require click-throughs increase ad exposure, which increases revenues by increasing the possibility of both options happening. It is an intelligent decision but over complicates navigation through sites. Wired is a great counterexample, as they offer click through lists to ease bandwidth on both ends for graphic intensive lists but also offer the view all option for users who want to load it all at once to read through. But like I said, list content is generally crap and primarily exists because site contributors have to meet a quota and readers like the simplicity of lists. Hey, at least they did something right.
Now I must mention personal blogs. Yes, the WordPresses and Bloggers and the like. Most of the time the default options are brilliant in their minimalism. For instance, this blog layout was chosen because it is least taxing. The content is easy to read, links to additional information is available up top, portions of several articles are featured on the main page, and to the left you have options to view articles by month or by tagged content. While a promoter of accessibility and simplicity, I will certainly not say that this blog proves me a champion of these elements. While I might say that the blog is crafted so that the most important element – the text content! – stands out, some might say the layout is overly simplistic and boring. At the very least, I could use a banner. But I present my blog in stark contrast to over designed layouts with graphics galore. A banner is one thing, but I see it as an affront to simplicity when text is set over an image. Unless the text and the image are actually interacting in some creative fashion, the result is overly busy and requires the eye to separate elements that should be separate anyway. It does not matter if the graphics are faded behind the text – it should not happen and never in the main reading panel. The content should always stand out. Not against another element but against minimal resistance. As this is not web design 101, I believe I do not have to say anything about odd fancy fonts or garish color schemes. Make your content as visually accessible as possible.
At this point it must be pointed out that I am in no way a graphic designer. I did not go to school to study graphic design nor have I an academic background in UIs. I am merely a regular user of many devices, services, programs, etc. My focus is always on the content. Bells and whistles do not compare to content, and too many bells and whistles tend to exist to distract from content. Please keep in mind what is most important for whatever it is you are creating and focus on that. The rest should exist only to enhance – and remember that less is more.
The internet is not the only place where interfaces can go horribly wrong. The most common example is the DVD menu. While at first we praised the immediately accessibility of TV episodes on DVD versus VHS, I am sure that some people have encountered those series with very poor menu designs. When anyone puts a TV on DVD disc into the player, 9 times out of 10 they just want to watch the episodes. Every menu should offer an immediate play all option. Following that, every episode featured on the DVD should be right there was well and immediately playable. No, do not make us go to the episode selection menu. Also, do not immediately give us the scene selection menu. That is a more specific feature that thus should require less immediacy than simply watching the desired episode. The way I see it, and readers are welcome to disagree, there should be no interference with the primary task of watching, but the more specific tasks should require a more specific navigation from menu to menu.
While I’m discussing DVDs, let’s discuss animated interfaces. I am happy with animations and random things happening the background of the menu, but not when this increases load times. Load times are an affront to accessibility because they add to the viewing time. BluRays have greatly decreased this via their improved hardware, but my minimal interaction with the media device provides me little to draw on in terms of the possibility of load times. I imagine they still exist and the same rules should apply.
Cable companies should also make note of these rules. While this depends on the service one is receiving, the menus should require as few button presses as possible. I’m very happy with AT&T’s Uverse, but the options that affect my aspect ratio, audio output, language options, and closed captioning should all be located under the same portion of the menu instead of doled out in an odd horizontally scrolling list.
Finally, let me touch on software. Computer software and video game console software often suffer from the same things. Some of the most simple requests are buried within a series of menus (I want to change my file format or I want to remap the buttons on my game). Other times, the options they want us to have are front and center (I’m generally unconcerned about my character encoding when browsing the web, and please don’t give me my game play statistics so readily while I drudge through to find the map). The most bothersome element of design is the “Are you sure?” menu. I know this is supposed to catch the 1 out of 10 times a user exists unintentionally, but it should not pop up when a user immediately saves and then exits or has to go through a weird menu tree just to find the exit.
A criticism to my accessibility and simplicity stance is that it may put its foot down hard on individualization, especially in terms of web design. Well, how do you individualize your resume when there’s a certain standard that must be upheld? Make the content pop…and break the rules in both minimal and clever ways. The true test of creativity is not running rampant in a system void of structure but instead knowing how to be expressive within hard constraints.
This was not meant to be a series of complaints and grievances about items I encounter daily. Believe me, this could have been longer and potentially endangered me professionally. I wished to bring some sort of focus to how we interact with technology and how easy it is to overlook. Technology is meant to be utilizable and ease some elements of our lives. It should not provide new obstacles of any sort. People who create any sort of interactive technology need to make note of that to better improve the user experience. Users, on the other hand, should always be aware of what they’re getting, develop opinions about their interactions, and voice their suggestions for improvement. In Web 2.0, users are the new producers of content. By now we should have learned from the mistakes of the professionals.