Get Your Interface Out of The Way

I recently had the opportunity to play second in an interface design project, with my architect Chris Eppstein as lead designer. This was a particularly eye-opening challenge for me because for about the last 10 years, I’ve always been the lead on the design projects I’ve worked on.

Chris is a CSS luminary, father of Compass, and frequent open-source contributor.  He’s a wonderful designer in his own right, having at some point in his career had to choose between focusing on being the best coder ever, or being the best designer ever.  He chose code, but his instincts, understanding of standards and love for clean, simple design didn’t just disappear.  In fact, I think it’s part of what makes him such a great architect.

At the company where Chris and I both work, we’re developing an internal (think, enterprise) tool which is of critical importance to the business and has to be done FAST. You know, one of those “This should take 6 months, but we’re going to give you two, and if you don’t do it right the whole company will fail” projects. No pressure.  Since time was of the essence, the application needed to be incredibly complex and powerful, and there would only be two users in the whole world, Chris took the lead and designed the UI.

My job was to skin the UI, and to add UX guidance and value where I could. Chris had excellent, well-thought out and well-organized sketches, from which I was able to use standards and a “novice” eye (because I wasn’t involved in the product meetings) to build detailed comps.

So I was completely flummoxed when, in the process of comping one particular screen, I continually struggled to understand what was going on, how the hierarchy worked, and how to make it flow naturally with the screen before it. In the user experience business, when you’re having this problem, it means there’s a fundamental flaw in the requirements and you need to step backwards to examine the intent of this screen.

However, upon deeper inspection, the purpose of this screen was clear, the entry to it was simple and meaningful, and everything on the screen needed to be there, and needed to work the way it was designed.  Chris’s reasoning was sound – while there were tons of ways to simplify this screen with standards and best practices, every single one of them diminished the usability.

Wait, what? Simplification made something LESS usable?

And that’s when it struck home: that thing I’ve said to so many people, so many times.  “Don’t let your user interface get in the way of what your user wants to do.”  I always meant that you shouldn’t have so many bells and whistles and features that people can’t accomplish their tasks, but it actually works in the reverse, too.

This was a complex, difficult-to-grok design because if any one thing was missing from it, it would be fundamentally HARDER to use. This was an enterprise application and the core wish of the two people who would use it was to have everything in one place so they could move efficiently through their workflow.  This was an expert interface, and the fact that it makes me feel stupid is a sign that it’s meeting its very tiny demographic’s needs.

Now, please don’t use this as an excuse to add one more feature to your consumer app just because your users are on it every day, and need efficient workflows.  I’m going to say that 95% of the time, the answer is to simplify, using affordances and transparency and progressive degradation, white space and  golden path optimization. Make beautiful, useful things that don’t cause people to feel shouted at or claustrophobic.

But once in a while, just once in a hootenanny, maybe the answer to making something easier to use, is to make it more complex.

Today’s Interesting Link:  This interface has SO much potential. it’s not perfect – it’ll be a while before people are comfortable arrowing through screens and so there need to be affordances that will disturb the crisp aesthetic aspirations here.  However, I love love love this idea, and I can’t wait to see what develops.

Today’s Usability Quote:
“When I’m working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” – R. Buckminster Fuller

Today’s Music To Design To:

Premiers Symptomes by AIR.  This is a very mellow piece, good for designing with whitespaces and light colors.  I’d listen to this for a feminine, modern kick, because it puts me in a lightweight mood.

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