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Simple designs win Web software fans…

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User interface design has lagged other areas of computing since the 1950s. Early computers were complex, expert-only devices.  Interface methods ranged from switches and dials to key punch cards.  Only specially trained personnel were able to interact directly with the machines.

The emergence of keyboard data terminals in the late 1970s allowed expert programmers to type in commands.  Finally, in the late 1970s, specialized end-user applications emerged.  This event was revolutionary to the industry, requiring accountants, actuaries, and other business end users to interact directly with a computer rather than pass instructions through a programmer or specially trained data-entry clerk.

These early end-users were the first to complain about interface design.  The interface at the time was a simple monochrome screen with characters.  No graphical elements or icons to build a rich user experience.  No mouse to navigate.  No multiple windows to support multiple tasks.  In this world, computing tasks were highly linear, with step-wise data entry and batch reporting as the principal end-user functions.

I entered the industry in the late 1980s and lived through the graphical user interface (GUI) transition in computing.  The introduction of graphical, pixellated, multicolored screens ushered in a new age of application possibilities for the industry.  Unfortunately, application design methods and standards were divorced from how people thought and how tasks were accomplished.  There also was a steep learning curve for the industry on fonts, colors, contrast and other visual elements of design.  About the time application design had evolved to a reasonable level of competence, the Internet came along and reset expectations again.

The principles of good interface and application design that were well established when Mosaic was first introduced created outsized expectations for end-users about what could be done online.  The PC-based client-server computing environment was a complex system that supported far more intricate application elements than the Internet could at first deliver.  Even today most online applications that gather and manage data are primitive in structure and design compared to their client-server ancestors.  Moreover, Ajax and other client-side Web interface elements represent nothing more than a continual thinning of the client-side of computing.  This is true of mobile applications as well.

The real revolution driven by the Internet is the proliferation of training-free, intuitively obvious applications that address mass audiences.  Even when user interface design reached a reasonable level of proficiency in the mid-90s, the typical user was a business employee taking an order, working in a call center, running a financial report, or hiring a new employee.  Each user went through specific training on how to use each application.  User-support specialists stood by to help everyone use each business system. The Web changed that completely.  All users now have consumer-based expectations for application design.

One simple example is travel.  If you are old enough to remember travel before the Internet, you will remember that average individual travelers had no direct computer interaction with reservation systems.  Travel agents and airline/hotel/rental agency reservation agents were trained in a handful of complex applications to make reservations.  The main system, SABRE, still lives behind most travel Web sites in some form.

The Internet allowed the casual consumer to make reservations directly.  To accomplish this, the travel industry had to design user interface elements that were immediately clear to the end user, who had no special training or previous exposure to the system.  This is why Web site design revolves almost entirely around simplicity, obviousness of intent, and field-based data entry.

Today the formerly labor intensive task of taking reservations in the travel industry has been entirely outsourced to the consumer.  Making a reservation using any of the major travel sites is remarkably similar in each case, and few novelties have been introduced.  In fact, a travel site missing a pop-up calendar or violating the basic and well-known steps to complete a reservation would likely fail.  Incremental improvements to the process are allowed, but keeping things simple and task-oriented is the first rule of Web application design.

These simple principles have cascaded into business applications.  End users are trained to use computing resources first on the Web and next on their phones.  Business applications that present a more complex interface design are not likely to meet with broad acceptance.  The evolution of Web design, with a cult-like focus on customer intimacy and task focus, means less innovation in bells and whistles and more innovation in simple metaphors of usage.  It is critical for early-stage Web companies to get this right from the outset.  Tight functional circles defined by clear design elements will attract consumers or business users.  Forget simplicity and complexity will seal your fate.

Written by Mike Venerable

October 13, 2009 at 8:50 am

One Response

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  1. […] Venerable had a post today on simple UI design that stirred up some thoughts.  When designing anything, a device, web […]

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