If you work or are involved in the web design and IT sector, you would have definitely encountered the term UI – user interface – a term that is widely used by technology and design companies in reference to the visual/front-end of a solution.
Whether a website or any other kind of solution, UI has become a selling factor as the market increasingly recognises that visual appeal is vital to the success of a web or any other solution.
Clients and prospects today ask for details or a presentation on user interface design for websites and applications. They want to see proposed colour schemes, the font styles, etc. However, calling this UI is misleading.
With the advent of the Apple iPhone, tablets and ever-increasing processing power, graphically rich UIs are far more prevalent than they have ever been. However it is important that the market understands the difference between graphic design and usability design.
Graphic design is about how something looks whereas usability design is how something works. Although gaining a consistent look is important, a common style sheet will not solve all your problems. Just because the font is black 12pt on all your applications, doesn’t mean they will look or work the same!
For an analogy, let’s compare websites to cars. Websites all have a home page, navigation to get around, and probably a logo. Cars all have a steering wheel, doors, gauges, tyres. Graphic design on a website is like paint, finishes, and body shape on a car. Some websites look like the latest sexy car and others look like dated vehicles that have seen better days!
But if you want a car to work like a Ferrari, you can’t just paint it red and put a sticker on it. It won’t work the same way!
UI design is about studying and improving the interaction between humans – the user – and machines. Usability is about interaction: how the application behaves, rather than what it looks like. It encompasses issues such as the ease with which users can learn the site, the fit of the functionality to users’ goals, and the efficiency with which common operations can be carried out.
Usability and graphic design are two completely different concepts, working hand-in-hand to create a functional website that is pleasant to look at, easy to use and facilitates tasks. The user’s perception and environment are two key factors in building the right UI.
There are various subconscious physiological patterns within users which need to be catered to in order to create the most appropriate interface for your targeted users. Features such as always maintaining the main navigation in the same place throughout the solution, using icons to represent actions and colour coding similar tasks across the solution help the users brain to associate tasks quicker.
No matter how experienced the user base is, it is much faster to guide the user into what needs to be done rather than expecting the user to know it.
Environment may dictate the speed at which the user is using the solution, whether the user is wearing gloves to operate the system, whether the user is using the solution whilst walking or driving, whether it’s indoors or outdoors. All these factors help in building the right environment. The interface of a GPS needs to offer bigger buttons with clear contrasting colours to allow their users – drivers – to press a button quickly while glancing at the screen. If the interface is being used outdoors then colours need to be contrasting to enhance the visual experience in direct sunlight. If the environment on which the solution is going to be operated includes tablets and smart phones then the right technology needs to be used. FLASH, for example, will not work on most smartphones and tablets!
Environment might dictate a faster response or speed to operating a solution. UI design is used in order to improve the layout and process functions of the tool. An example of this is the interface that airport check-in personnel use in order to process the queues of passengers in the quickest way possible. Designing the best user interface for such a solution would entail conducting a ‘functionality weighting index’ of the tool to identify which tasks are performed by the user most and in what sequence. This study will allow you to design a solution interface that will maximise speed, efficiency as well as user experience.
UI is the study involved in building the most suitable medium of interaction between the solution and the human who is using it. Having a visually appealing design is crucial in today’s web solutions, however it would be pointless if the UI is not suitable!
(Mr Zammit Ciantar is a director at InFusion Solutions, a local provider of custom-made web solutions.)