Reading Time: 12 minutes
What is one of the deadliest traps we can fall into in user interface design? How can we avoid it? What is the difference between simple and dumb user interface? How can we make interfaces more intuitive? Have you ever asked any of these questions? What are some good practices for user interface design? This article may finally give you the answers you have been looking for.
The problem with user interface design
It should be always part of the user interface design process to ask one simple question. And, to ask this simple question repeatedly. Is this really intuitive? And, we should put an extra emphasis on the “really”. However, there is a significant difference between what we, designers, think is intuitive and what is “really” intuitive. Meaning, is it intuitive for the user?
Understanding and seeing this difference can be very difficult for three reasons. First, we have library of knowledge about user interface design. I know what you think. Well, this should be a good thing don’t you think? Well, yes and know. Knowledge of user interface design helps us do our job, create great user interfaces. Unfortunately, it can also do us harm. How?
The burden of knowledge
Simply said, our knowledge of user interface design changes the way we think and see. Let me give you a simple example. When designer opens a magazine, there are two types of things she will see. On one hand, she will see what everyone else sees, unless she has some perception related health condition. She will see text, images and whatever is presented on the pages of the magazine she is reading.
On the other hand, she will also see something different, something only designer can see. She may “see” the grid, patterns used in the layout of the page, visual hierarchy, and so on. Sure, everyone reading the magazine will see these things as well. However, she is more likely to pay attention to them. In the end, she spent countless hours studying user interface design and its examples.
These hours of study and practice made her the designer she is today. However, these hours altered her perception. Her knowledge allows her see subtle nuances and see them faster. This is a good thing as well as bad thing. It makes her vulnerable to make assumptions that may not be true. For example, about the degree to which the design is intuitive. Yet, this is only her assumption.
When users design for users
Knowledge is not the only problem. The second problem, also potentially leading to assumptions, is her own experience as a user. We all used some user interface, in some shape or form. And, we used this experience to form certain assumption about how that interface worked so we could use it. Again, this is a good thing as well as bad thing. Otherwise, we would have to always learn it again.
As you probably realized, all the experiences we gained as users can have the same impact as our knowledge. Well, I should say our professional knowledge, to distinguish between those two because experience itself is also form of knowledge. Anyway, our own experience can also make us vulnerable to make assumptions that may not be true, and change how intuitive something seems to us.
Thanks to our experience and learned patterns, we can see something as intuitive while others may not. A simple test. Do you have a smartphone? It is easy to use, right? Find someone who is used to a “dumb” phone. Then, let that person try your smartphone and watch what will happen. You will probably see that the phone you considered easy to use can quickly become a puzzle for someone else.
It was only your own assumption, built on your experiences, that your smartphone is easy to use. With time, you learned how to use it, the correct patterns. As a result, something unfamiliar became almost a part of your body. These patterns are not something we are born with. We learned them through our experiences. And, we are constantly learning some new when we use something new.
The more you use it …
Finally, the third problem. The time. The longer we work on some user interface design, and the more we use it, the more familiar it will become to us. This can, in turn, again distort our perception about how intuitive the user interface really is. How intuitive something is is basically just a result of a use repeated over amount of time. Thanks to this, anything can be intuitive.
A seemingly hard solution for a seemingly simple problem
So, what is the way out of this trap? We have to start asking that one simple question. Is this really intuitive? Then, before we answer this question, we have to remind ourselves about the three problems we just discussed. One, our professional knowledge changes our perception. Two, our own experiences change our perception. And, third the time we use the interface changes our perception.
The result? We are might make assumptions that may not true. As you can see, the solution for this problem is simple and hard, both at the same time. It requires us to regularly “check” ourselves to see whether we are making assumptions based on our knowledge or experience. It requires us to keep in mind that what may seem intuitive users interface design may not be intuitive for others, for those people who will use the interface in the future.
In addition to keeping this, in a sense, a beginner’s mind, we should also test our answers. Meaning, find a few people who never saw that interface and let them try it. This is probably the most objective way to ensure we are as unbiased as we can be. So, let’s make it a habit to regularly ask ourselves, is this really intuitive? Then, let’s always doubt, question and test our answers.
Simple, but not dumb
When we talk about intuitive user interface design, we like to talk about interfaces that often excel at simplicity. These interfaces usually use a lot of white space. And they also limit the amount of content present at the same time. As a result, the interface becomes uncluttered, clean and visually pleasing. We can say that it looks simple. However, that doesn’t mean it is dumb down.
Some people think that this is the key to intuitive user interface design, to make the interface dumber. False assumption appearing real. There is a difference between dumb and simple interface. It is similar to the difference between person who is dumb and person who explains concept in a simple language. In the first case, you will learn nothing. In the second, you can learn a lot.
So, let’s not confuse these two terms, simple and dumb. How can we define a simple user interface? I think that a simple user interface is an interface that helps the user achieve her goal in the easiest way possible. This means that process of user interface design has to always with the user in mind, so to speak. We have to always ask what the main user’s goal or job is.
Then, when we find the answer, we can start working on our main goal. That is creating an interface that will help the user achieve her goal in the easiest, fastest and least demanding way possible. This means putting together all we now about user interface design as well as examples of existing interfaces. Then, we should remove all that is not essential, or that could make it harder for the user to achieve her goal.
I know that this is a very general, or vague. And, it is not helpful. Every user interface is different. Therefore, every process of user interface design will have to be at least a bit different as well. This process has to be customized for each and every situation. However, there are some practices we can apply in the majority of use cases.
One thing we have to remember is the problems with intuitive user interface design we discussed above. What we think is user’s main goal or job may not be true. It is only our own assumption. We have to always talk to people who match the profile of our target user. Otherwise, we may base our user interface design process on wrong job and end up in a wrong destination with unusable product.
A few tips to make the user interfaces more intuitive
We discussed the problem with intuitive user interface design and the way to solve it. Then, we quickly talked about what is a simple user interface and how created a usable definition for it. Now, let’s dive one degree deeper. Let’s take a look at some tips and practices that will help us make the result of our user interface design process really intuitive.
Make it digestible
One way to make user interface more simple and easier to use is by using something called progressive disclosure. Put simply, we should present the user only with the most important information or options at first, say, on the main screen. This can be some basic instructions or introduction. Then, when user really wants to learn more, we should offer her ways to do so.
This will help the user start using the interface without being overwhelmed and paralyzed by amount of information, options or features. We have to remember that our primary goal, at least in the beginning, is to help the user start using the interface. Our goal is not teaching her everything there is so she can achieve mastery in using the interface, or become a superuser.
We want to help the user adopt the interface and learn just what is necessary to interact with the interface and get the job done. So, if you have some information that the user has to know, create a very short summary and start with that. The user doesn’t need to know every feature and option available. After that, provide the user with some way to learn more when she wants.
What if we have interface that has to present the user with a large amount of information? In that case, we can still use progressive disclosure and make the information more digestible. We can split the information into smaller blocks and show them to the user one by one. This way, we can also control in what order user gets the information and decrease the chance of skipping something important.
We can apply the same practice everywhere. If the interface requires the user to provide some information, we can ask only for the most important. For example, we can ask only for email and password, the data that might be really necessary to start using the interface. Then, when user logs in for the first time, we can ask her for additional information. Again, in small digestible chunks.
Another way to make any result of user interface design intuitive is by using elements that look like one can interact with them. This sounds simple. However, if we take a look current at the trend of ghost buttons and even brutalism, there are some examples where it is hard to distinguish what is a button. You have two squares and one is a button, probably the one with barely readable label.
We can have intuitive user interface with elements that look almost the same. User has to have some chance to distinguish between what is interactive and what is not. This doesn’t mean that we should never use things such as ghost buttons. It means that we must be sure that button looks like some user can interact with, that it is clickable. And, this applies to all elements. Obvious always wins.
So, yes, use your creativity in your user interface design process. Just don’t go too far. Test your ideas with real people, real users. Don’t build the whole thing on your own unfounded assumptions. Always seek feedback.
When you ask user to do some action, provide her with some feedback after the action is completed. Intuitive user interface design should always aim to create a dialog between the user and the interface. It should be a two-way street. When user do something, the interface should respond. The same if something has to be done. The interface should notify the user and show the steps she has to make.
Interaction with interface should feel like interaction with living person. The interface should always respond to user’s action in some way. Intuitive user interface should create a dialog with the user. This conversation can be in any shape and form. It can be through text notifications, animations, sounds, etc. When it comes to feedback, there are two things we have to keep in mind.
First, we have to make sure that we will not overwhelm the user. Showing 10 or 20 notifications will not help the user. It will only annoy and overwhelm her. Imagine having a conversation with someone and being flooded with constant flow of question. The same here. Respond to the user with notifications, but keep the amount low. Always consider alternative ways to respond to the user.
Second, when there is something that needs to be done, we should show the user how to do it. It is not enough to say this or that has to be done or there is some problem. Intuitive user interface design is about showing the user not only the information. It is also about showing her the steps so she can act on it immediately. Don’t assume that she knows what to do, show it step by step.
Speak users’ language
Another way to make the interface intuitive is by using the same language as the user. This doesn’t mean just using English if our users are English speakers. It also means using the words they are likely to use, and in the way they are using them. If we know that our target user group uses some slang or variation of language we can use it too and customize the user interface design.
Using a concrete slang or language variation is helpful for several reasons. First, the interface will be more familiar to the user. Since we are speaking the same language, literally, it will be easier for the user to understand the interface and start using it. The interface will no longer be a stranger. It will be like talking with someone from the same city, country, etc.
Second, this also means that we can use smaller amount of information to help the user understand how the interface works. It will be easier for us to explain how features of the interface work and how to use them. There will be also less space for potential misunderstanding. Finally, user will more likely use the interface because, thanks to the same language, she will feel more comfortable.
Using the same language doesn’t end with words. We can also use icons that are familiar to our target user group. This will also make the communication and interaction between users and the interface faster and easier. The same applies to other elements. If we know that our target user is used to seeing some elements we should use them. The result will be again greater familiarity.
As before, we have to make sure we know our target user group very well. Using the same language can help us make user interface design more intuitive. However, this is based on the assumption that we know our target group well. If not, we will “achieve” the exact opposite result. The interface will be hard to use for people and the mutual communication will be broken from the very beginning.
Make the user interface efficient
This will be the last practice for more intuitive user interface design. As we discussed above, the goal should be creating an interface that helps the user achieve her goal in the easiest and fastest way possible. There should be no inefficient or unnecessary interactions. If some action can be done in just two steps, we should not force the user to make three.
The same applies to information and using progress disclosure. We should provide the user with information that is important and relevant for the current situation. If there is some additional information, we should provide the user with a simple way to get to this information. However, we should not force the user to read it if it is not necessary or important in that situation.
We should also provide the user with some default options or choices she can use. This will make the interaction and communication between her and the interface faster and easier. It will also help the user give us the right type of information because we will give her an example of what we are asking for. This can be useful for designing more intuitive forms contained in the interface.
Finally, we should reiterate to never overuse notifications and messages and overwhelm the user. Yes, it is important to provide the user with feedback. However, there are different types of feedback as well as priorities for each. Notification should not be a default type of feedback. We should use it only when there is something important the user should know about.
Otherwise, we should consider other, and more subtle, ways to notify the user feedback that something is happening in the background. The goal of user interface design process should be creating an interface that is unobtrusive. An interface that can become invisible.
Closing thoughts on user interface design
This is all I have for you today guys. I hope you enjoyed this article. I also hope that you learned something that changed the way you think about interface design. There is one final message I would like you to remember. User interface design starts and ends with users. It is not about creating something that will look good on Dribbble or Behance or even your portfolio.
User interface design is about creating interfaces that help users achieve their goals and finish specific jobs quickly and easily. The goal of user interface design should be creating a tool that not looks good, but that is also pleasure to use. Aesthetics are not everything. Design is also about function. Design also has to work. With that, thank you for your time and have a great day!
Do you have any questions, recommendations, thoughts, advice or tip you would like to share with other readers of this blog, and me? Great! Please share it in a comment. Or, if you want to keep things more "private", feel free to contact me on twitter or send me a mail. I would love to hear from you.
Did you like this article? Please subscribe.