“Art” and UI Design

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No matter what document or specification or standard is used, good UI design, like fashion, has a subjective quality to it. In other words, there is still opinion involved on whether or not someone likes it. It’s like that age-old quote about art: “I may not know what art is, but I know what I like.”

The twelve guidelines remove the subjective aspect of evaluating a UI—or at least reduce it substantially! There IS a technology to UI design, there ARE basic principles that result in better interfaces.

The ultimate arbiter is the customer and how well volumes of customers like and adopt the product. The UI is the first, the foremost, and the primary interaction with the product by the customer and thus has a huge impact on the success of a product. It’s worth getting it right.

Good underlying code impacts the performance of a product and the reliability of a product. Long-term satisfaction is obtained by having bug-free software and good software performance.

Yes, following good coding practices and making code tight and efficient are good engineering principles to follow and certainly help speed subsequent releases. I wholly support–and recommend–good engineering practices that result in logical code that is well laid out, well-documented, that can be upgraded and updated without tearing one’s hair out.

However it’s the UI that drives success. The underlying code can be a rat’s nest but as long as it works and looks good, will the typical customer care?

You can have a great product. The code is tight, well architected, robust, with nary a bug in sight. But if the UI is plain jane, if the user interaction with the software is clunky and it’s hard to use, your success will be limited.

(Yes, some software products have succeeded in spite of themselves. Government regulation, filling a specific market niche, the only product available, killer marketing, there are factors that can drive a product to success in spite of itself. But if they had a great UI…)

With the UI the most important part, how to you design a great UI when there is a subjective quality to “art?”

The fact of the matter is, there are technical factors with art that make it appealing to the viewer. “Good” artists know these things, either instinctively or by training and apply them. While there will always be a subjective quality to what is considered good–cars come in MANY different colors, for example–there are certain principles that apply to great UI design.

There are reasons why people like certain things. With the User Interface, just as there are technical laws behind what constitutes good “art,” there are certain principles that define a great UI. I have identified twelve principles of UI design that, when applied, result in great UIs.

What we’re going for is a UI that looks good, is easy to use and satisfies the customer. Following the twelve principles will result in a good UI. To make a great UI, it takes that artistic touch, that drive to perfection, applying the basics with a touch of flair.

In my next post, I’ll get into the twelve principles. Stay tuned!



Classics Rock

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I think a true classic endures the test of time. As a car fanatic, certain car designs transcend the era in which the vehicle was built. What looked great fifty years ago still looks great today.

For example, the Duesenberg looks fantastic and I love to look at the lines and curves and swoops of an excellently restored example. The Bugatti Atlantic Coupe and Talbot Lago, similar styling in my mind, take my breath away.

I still think the Jaguar XKE, coupe or convertible, is the sexiest car ever made. The 1963 Chevrolet Corvette split-window coupe remains an icon and I wish I could afford one! The ’57 T-bird still turns heads driving down the street. There are more on my list of personal favorites, such as the Ferrari 250 GTO and the Ford GT40.

Today’s styling is completely different than these classic cars. Yet these great car designs persist over time, turning heads and capturing hearts of new generations. Some cars are so classic, car companies are re-creating them today.

In short, the Classics rock, whether it’s cars, music or great UIs.

While people get nostalgic over the Commodore 64, the Apple II, the Altair, the Tandy, and even Pong, Asteroids and Pac-Man are remembered fondly, if I ask, “What are the classic UIs?” nothing really stands out. People might answer, “Windows 3.1” or “the Macintosh.” Not because the UIs were great, but because these UIs were a quantum leap in functionality.

What makes a car design become a classic can be boiled down to a couple of descriptive words: Elegance, style, flair. Great cars evoke a passion within us and new generations still look at these examples and go, “Wow!”

I believe that great UIs can be created with elegance, style and flair, and these transcend the latest fashions. You might say we don’t need a UI to create passion, but why not? Mac users love their Macs. It’s not just because their MacBook Air weighs 12.7 ounces and practically levitates in the air. They have an interaction with their pc that is generated by the UI.

Whether you’re following the Metro trend, or the Apple trend, or some other “style” (style as in type, or kind), a great UI has an aesthetic quality to it that is pleasing to the eye. Whether the buttons are mono-color or the old “3D” look, an elegant UI is an elegant UI.

Great UIs are well laid out, with the bits and pieces well organized, it’s easy to read, it’s easy to use. They’re not just utilitarian, they have some flair to them, a touch of elegance, a dash of class.

My personal opinion is: don’t worry so much about the latest trend. Instead worry about functionality and elegance, flair and class. AND if you can incorporate the latest trend, then do it! Creating a UI that follows (or leads) the latest trend shouldn’t be the primary design consideration, making a great UI should be #1.

Create the Classics.

Design Tastes, Fads, “Fashion” and UI Design

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True design guidelines apply regardless of the latest trend, fashion or fad. As time goes by, what is considered a “good UI” changes, just like fashion. For example, the Aero look was “the next big thing” when Windows Vista was released, and this dictated UI design for several years. Apple upped the ante with the iPad and this look influenced design for a number of years. Windows then came out with Windows 8, and evidently everything associated with Vista was bad, because they completely abandoned the Aero look in favor of Metro. The Metro look is currently in vogue and the next big “fashion trend” will change how UIs look and feel yet again.

As new products hit the market, the market itself changes and, like fashion, what is considered good UI design can be a moving target. A good UI designer will take the current fashion style and use his or her tools to create a great UI that is pleasing to the customer and meets the customer’s idea of what is good. When UI design is well executed, you will find that the principles of UI design have been implemented, either knowingly or subconsciously by the designer. (I like to think of it as intuitive design, intuitively knowing and following the principles.)

The aesthetics of a design takes into account what the customer currently considers or will consider is a “good UI” based on the current fashion trends, while adhering to the principles.

The twelve principles of UI design apply regardless of fashion. Two points, using white space or applying fades, may change with UI fashion and these points may need to be updated, however the underlying theory applies. All twelve principles have been proven over time as key fundamentals that when implemented, result in killer UIs.

Design according to the latest fashion, whether Aero, Metro, Apple, etc., while following the twelve principles. You can’t help but have a great UI.

©2017 Curt Larson. All Rights Reserved.

Designing Great UIs

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A developer recently asked for UI design guidelines. While I’ve worked to a set of design principles evolved over years of developing products, I didn’t have a “Go To” manual of the key design principles to show others.

A Google search followed. After all, there are certain principles that great UIs embody and UI designers I’ve worked with have followed these same principles. Surely someone wrote a book on the “Laws of UI Design” that I could refer to. I found volumes of information. Literally, volumes. One document was 384 pages, another 760, still another over 500 pages. With such lengthy standards on UI design, they miss the first and most important point: make UI designs simple. If it takes 500 pages to define simple, they’ve missed the boat.

Detailed standards serve large corporations well and serve an important purpose, ensuring that everything produced in the company meets a standard. At the same time, the very essence of good UI design is lost in the immense detail. While it’s good to sweat the details to achieve perfection, defining the details loses sight of the over-arching goal: to satisfy customers so they buy and use software, and the very principles one must follow to achieve that.

In the volumes and volumes of information, I found a couple of documents on UI design that covered important data. While several important points are covered, they did not include key elements that I’ve learned and applied over the years. To remedy that, I wrote a Guide that pulls together twelve fundamentals and defines the essence of what makes a UI great. This blog will cover each chapter of the Guide. And since I can’t stop once I get going on a topic, I’ll probably add more detail–resulting in updating the guide to version 2.

The principles of good UI design apply to web pages, web apps as well as installed programs. There are differences in execution, as web apps and installed programs are designed to be used, while web pages (not including on-line shops) are designed to interest as a Marketing tool, to sell as a pre-Sales tool, or assist as a post-Sales or Support tool. This difference in function dictates differences in content as well as look and feel, however the twelve key points still apply.

Here’s to your next great UI.

Designing for Stupid Users

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I just demonstrated how stupid users can affect the success of a software rollout because I was a stupid user.

We recently had to install a new VPN client. And being a know-it-all, I quickly scanned the directions and launched into the installation. Which immediately failed.I didn’t read the instructions. 

No surprise—I’m a guy and it’s our job to NOT read directions, right?

The VPN client install was actually the installation of two programs, the VPN client and then a patch. We all got two emails that looked very similar, with the installer file name in large font in each (that had the same name followed by a letter & number identifier), and then the instruction email with the instructions attached.
I looked through the instructions in the attached file, said, “Oh yeah, simple InstallShield Wizard,” then opened the most recent email and double-clicked the file name in very large font and launched the installer. And promptly got an error message.

After being referred to the directions annoyingly by IT and told to enter a ticket as specified in the directions, I scanned through the whole set of instructions. I discovered that there was a sequence of the two installers. Ohhhhh!!!!! 

Then when I failed the install again I read the descriptions and discovered there was a screen where I entered the wrong info.

What did I learn? In today’s world, computer users don’t read details. Us users visually scan titles, look at pictures, look for key words, look at large or cool text/fonts and notice steps that are simply and clearly laid out.

Looking at this from a product planning standpoint, what were the failures?

First and foremost, and this is a no-brainer, a two-step installation process is a recipe for disaster. Why does a program require two installers??? The remedy: Instead of a patch after installing, make an up-to-date installer.

Second, while the detailed instructions went through both installers in sequence, the two-step installation process wasn’t identified in the installer emails nor in the beginning of the directions. The remedy:

  1. Clearly state in the beginning of the directions in large font that there are two installations and they must be done in sequence.
  2. Each installer email says clearly, “Install this file FIRST” or “Install this file SECOND.”

Even I would have a hard time screwing that up.

Third: Instead of a paragraph describing what to enter, use a bullet list or numbered list. For example:

“You must enter:

  1. Organization name: <Company name>
  2. User name: your email prefix (example: johnj, omitting “@ourcompany.com”)
  3. Password: your computer login password”

That was the paragraph I didn’t read completely because the content was written in one long paragraph.

Also on this third point, the directions had the screen described above displayed, which is a very good thing. Even better would be red arrows pointing to each field with the appropriate number at the arrow tail (1, 2, 3), with the numbers corresponding to the numbered list. It is obvious at a glance that specific info needs to be entered where the arrow is pointing and I have to look at the list to find out what I need to enter.

The short story is that directions need to be visual. Think IKEA furniture instructions. Pretty much anybody can assemble IKEA furniture by scanning the directions. Can you imagine trying to assemble IKEA furniture with written directions?

How does this impact viral growth? The harder it is to install and use the software, the more likely the user will give up and not use it. The easier to install and use, the more likely it will be used, the more likely the user will mention it to others, the more likely lots and lots of people will install and use it.

You’ve got to design the UI for stupid users. Even the smartest of us can become a stupid user and get fed up. If a genius like me who is computer-literate (more or less!) can become a stupid user, how likely is the average Joe or Jane going to act like a stupid user?

It is a lot harder to make software and directions dirt simple. But it’s effort well invested, as the ease of use has a big impact on viral growth.

Not Invented Here Syndrome

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This phenomenon is not restricted to the software world. It’s prevalent throughout every industry, every facet of our lives. So why mention it regarding going viral?

Going viral is hard work. It’s made harder when there are barriers or obstacles to overcome, and there are always barriers and obstacles. Because going viral is hard, you need to do the right things and not waste time on useless or unnecessary things. Common sense, right?

The problem with the “Not Invented Here Syndrome” is that people think they have the best widget/gadget/software in the world for their planned conquest—but they really don’t. The result is a product and go to market strategy that falls flat on its face.

When a company falls prey to this condition, they stop looking. They stop looking at the competition, they stop looking at the market, they stop looking objectively at their own product(s), they stop looking at what the customers need and want. Their own opinions and beliefs outweigh the realities of what they are striving to achieve.

It’s a tough slog going to market when your product is not the best and your marketing misses the mark. Yes, I have done this. But I also knew my shortcomings, had realistic expectations and used that first foray to generate revenue so that I could build a better mousetrap and compete effectively.

This condition can happen to small start-ups, but it’s most common in large companies that have enjoyed market dominance and they start believing their own press. Meanwhile some young turks out there are focused on doing the impossible and building a better product while the mega-company is convinced they are the be-all and end-all, only coming out with incremental improvements or cosmetic enhancements while the new guys are changing the world.

And what about the company that was the only player in a space, the product is actually mediocre, but their dominant position prevented competition? And then a young upstart comes along with a much better product and starts eating away at market share? How does the goliath respond? What is their mindset when facing an adversary for the first time?

If you think your product is the best, so what? It’s only the best until consumer tastes or expectations change or another whipper-snapper comes along and beats your pants off.

If your market research conclusively proves you have the better mouse trap, congratulations! But remember: sports teams don’t automatically win the championship the following year. Other teams get better, your stars age or get hurt, and the next thing you know you’re playing .500 ball.

Business is the same. Markets change, new products come and go. Just because you’re #1 now doesn’t entitle you to remain #1 forever. Take the rose-colored glasses off and look. Keep the market research going to identify what’s changing, identify the competition, identify what you need to provide to stay competitive and especially better.

Constantly find out what your customers need and are going to need, build it, market it and sell it to them.

The moral of the story is, the moment you think you’re the best is (often) the moment you stop striving to be the best. It’s the moment when you stop paying attention and arrogance and complacency sets in.

Sometimes I think a company needs the threat of extinction to maintain focus, to stay sharp and constantly strive to be better. A little fear can be a great motivator that spurs folks into action.

If you want to become the best, if you want to remain the best, keep your eyes peeled at the market and your competition, and keep driving to create great products that customers want.

“Jack be Nimble, Jack be Quick”

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I would hazard a guess that most people have heard the old poem:

Jack be nimble
Jack be quick
Jack jump over the candlestick

A search on Google traces the origin to one of two possibilities: The tendency for “Calico Jack” Rackham, the notorious pirate, to narrowly evade capture for many years, or the popular past-time (there was no internet in those days) of jumping over candlesticks as a game, and having good luck or your fortune come true if you didn’t extinguish the flame.

Whatever the source is, the mantra of “Jack be Nimble, Jack be Quick” certainly applies when going viral.

Speed of software development is very important, as taking too long to bring a product to market means someone else will beat you to it. Being able to change mid-stream is also critical, as you may have the “perfect app” only to see someone else bring a competitive product to market and you have to figure out a “more better” solution fast.

There are enough examples of companies taking too long to bring a product to market, or not updating fast enough to keep up with the competition. Can you say Blackberry? They had the market cornered on mobile phones with email capabilities—only to see the iPhone and Android phones obliterate them. Failing to be nimble and quick when faced with a superior product resulted in them becoming practically irrelevant in the smartphone revolution.

I’m a firm believer in Agile/Scrum software development because its main focus is on fast and nimble software development. Whether you believe in Agile or Scrum is not the point of this post—whatever your software development method, you need to get the project done and out the door fast, and you need to respond to market challenges quickly without laborious and lengthy discourses on what the changes need to be.

I recommend a third line to this nursery rhyme:

Jack be nimble
Jack be quick
Jack be right

Your organization needs to adapt to changing market conditions, your organization needs to bring new products to market before that target market expires or is otherwise fulfilled, and the new products have to do what the customer needs and wants.

Build an organization that does all three and you’ll become the entrenched market leader. Stop doing those three as an organization and you will become irrelevant.

Going viral is one hell of a ride. To achieve viral growth and keep it going, be nimble, be quick and get the products right.

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