Moving Ideas

Towards enlightened User Interface Design

Change is the only constant when it comes to user interface design. Platforms, devices and context are always shifting, but some design principles hold true, perhaps having even greater importance in the face of this progress.

Rewind a few years, (more than I’d care to mention) and the potential for innovation in user interface design for the web was exploding. Flash was becoming widely adopted and the web was suddenly freed from the table-hacked layouts of old HTML. This provided an unprecedented opportunity to reimagine how we interact with screen content and designers forged ahead with ever more creative navigation systems and content relationship models. Often taking our cues from sci-fi and gaming culture we built interfaces that moved and spun and clicked and bleeped. We laughed in the face of the nav bar and rigged in vector-based 3D. We built soundscapes for websites and implored users to turn on their speakers. Designers’ toolkits expanded to include multitudes of stock button sounds and looping ambient background audio. This was a golden era for experimentation.

It was also a period of growing confusion, frustration and ultimately rebellion amongst users and developers alike. It turned out that people didn’t want to always have to relearn how to use websites, and that, mostly, interface audio was a distraction. What they really wanted was usable interfaces leading to useful content and, as broadband speeds increased, video content. With emergence of social media, user-generated content and Google’s dominance of search, Web 2.0 brought an emphasis of function over form.

With the arrival of touchscreens and the mobile app, we’ve seen this whole process acted out again, only much faster. Product designers worried that users would need button-like responses to their tapping, so haptics had phones buzzing on every keystroke. Early apps were like old Flash websites with button clicks and screen transition whooshes, and games had virtual joysticks overlaying the screen. But things have moved on. People get it. You tap the screen, the thing works.

So, while designers need to adapt and innovate, we need to remind ourselves of the  key issues. How is the user accessing the content – what kind of device are they using, what are their expectations? Where are they doing this – at home, on the bus, in the office, how long have they got? Why are they using the interface – for fact checking, because they’re killing time or to communicate?

The near future will bring new challenges for designers as speech and gesture control become more prevalent. But as always, the most successful user interfaces will be almost invisible. Pared back to focused elegance and in tune with the users’ needs, context and interests.

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Stephen Shaw is UX Director at Frank. His diverse range of skills and experience span digital media and moving image design. Follow him on twitter, @stephentshaw