When talking about user interface design and its importance, people usually take it for granted. Whenever we develop a website, program or app we instinctively know that it needs to look nice besides working perfectly. Most of the times, however, businesses don’t completely understand why. So, how important is user interface (UI) design and what is the difference between UI and user experience (UX)?
How bad can it get?
Early morning on January 13th, the State of Hawaii learned about the consequences of relying on a poorly designed user interface the hard way! An employee at Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency accidentally started a crisis, sending the cluster of islands and half a country spiralling in complete panic.
Mayhem dawned as people received an emergency alert on their mobiles, warning them to seek shelter because of an imminent threat of an incoming ballistic missile attack. Fortunately, this was only a false alarm, everything was fine and no one got hurt. But what happened?
Apparently, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency started an emergency missile warning system testing in November 2017. The exercise aimed to train Hawaii officials on how to react in case of a missile attack from North Korea.
Basically, employees in charge of this task were practicing warning people in case of emergency as fast as they could. To do this, they had to access a drop-down menu with two options: “PACOM(CDW)-STATEONLY” and “DRILL-PACOM(DEMO)-STATEONLY”. The employee in question simply selected the wrong option. This seemingly small “Oops”, however, submerged 1.4 million people in 38 minutes of total chaos, before officials managed to calm the masses.
Perhaps, your first judgement would be to blame the employee for creating this statewide false alarm. But in the discipline of User Interface Design, there is no such thing as user error. Well-designed software should anticipate users’ needs, and provide clear warning messages when drastic actions are about to be taken. It should also make possible errors easy to detect and revert. Take a look at the following example resembling the confusing UI that caused the error:
What is User Interface (UI) exactly?
If you work in the creative or Internet industries, or you’ve been in the IT industry long enough, you’ve probably heard terms like User Interface (UI), User Experience (UX) and Graphic User Interface (GUI) thrown around and used interchangeably.
The user interface, in the industrial design field of computer science, is the space where interactions between humans and machines occur. It’s the communication channel between a device and its users and includes everything from a set of dials, switches or knobs to graphical display formats that allow users to interact with it. Specifically related to the case presented before, the drop-down menu.
Although Graphic User Interface (GUI) is known to be a subset of User Interface (UI) that specifically relates to everything on the screen the user interacts with. Lately, the term user interface has been used to generally mean graphical user interface. The reason behind this is the increased use of computers and the relative decline in the collective awareness of heavy machinery.
So basically, everything you look at or interact with on a computer is part of the UI and has the role to provide a good user experience. This means delivering effective operation and control of the machine from the human, whilst the machine continuously feeds back information that supports the users’ decision-making process.
So… What is the point of User Interface Design?
The goal of user interface design is to produce a user interface that makes it intuitive, efficient, and enjoyable to run a machine in the proper way with the desired result. This usually means that the operator needs to provide minimal input to achieve the desired result, while the machine minimizes undesired outputs for the human. In fact, if not for the overall improvements of Windows 3.0x’s GUI in 1991, personal computers surely would have taken longer to become mainstream.
The design considerations applicable when creating user interfaces involve such disciplines as ergonomics and psychology. As we grow more accustomed and even hungry for technology, it is the same regarding our expectations. Therefore, the need for UI to evolve, and to become easier and enjoyable to use, constantly adapting to fit said expectations.
One such example is the computer mouse. Back in the days, you literally had to be a programmer to use a computer because of the command line interface. You couldn’t simply point and click; you’d have to type in the exact command you wanted the computer to perform.
In 1964, Douglas Engelbart thought there must be an easier way, so he put together a wooden primitive version of today’s mouse. In fairness, it was a revolutionary product, but looking at the tiny, smooth, wireless mouse in your hand while reading this post, it is easy to appreciate its evolution.
And… What exactly was User Experience (UX) again?
Let’s talk about history for a second. User Experience (UX) was coined for the first time by Don Norman in the 90’s, a cognitive scientist who once was the Vice President of the Advanced Technology Group at Apple.
Here’s his definition of it:
“‘User experience’ encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company,
its services, and its products.”
He invents the term because he believes that “human interface and usability are too narrow. It needs to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with the system. This includes industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction, and the manual”. The bottom line is, UI comprises all the tools and elements used to interact with the device. On the other hand, UX is the internal feeling users experiment as they interact with the device.
About the necessity of UI design
Essentially, we need UI because it helps us complete tasks easier and faster. This is also the reason for which UI design is considered a “living entity”, and as such, it keeps evolving. The more we discover about technology, the more we need it to match our expectations, which increase with every discovery becoming a cyclic process.
In the example we gave at the beginning of this post, the UI was supposed to be simple and clean. Users had a drop-down menu with 2 elements in it. Because the two options are named so similar, the user, in a rush to finish the task, may fail to read the word “drill” leaving his eyes and brain with 2 options with almost the same name.
In the same way, even in the case of a pop-up warning message, users develop habits in the measure they interact with technology. Not all of these habits being necessarily good, bypassing pop up messages tend to be among the most common. In this situation, basically, you have a 50/50 chance of sending 1.4 mils. people into a panic until a follow up message later revealed it was a mistake.
Real world applications
In less terrifying situations good interface design helps your business to become or stay relevant. The design of your website or app directly correlates with UX, making your product or brand memorable. In saying that, a website should, just as stores should, allow customers to learn about the organization and its offering. And finally, encourage dialogue through assertive communication and simplifying the goal, whether it be further information or a purchase decision.
As staff facilitates this process in a physical store, your user interface facilitates the process on your website. It can make the difference between acquiring and retaining customers and prospects or deterring them from ever returning.
Here lies the importance of the user interface and why it is critical to your success online. Usability is the foundation of a successful UI, which is key for positive user experience. This last one is critical in defining the relationship customers have with your brand.
Some good examples
One example of good UI design is flight booking websites like Lufthansa’s. This website eliminates all information and gives the user the freedom to search what they need. Also, it gives the possibility to pair flights with car rental, and hotel booking services, so clients don’t need to go to different platforms, offering the entire service-pack in one place.
Much like EatWith’s (another example of great UI), the Lufthansa website is created in the company’s vibrant colours so it’s easy to recognize and remember. They have their motto “Nonstop you” clearly visible so they create an emotional connection with visitors within seconds. It also has a multi-language display feature, making it easy for non-English speaking customers.
Finally, a very innovative example of excellent UI is, of course, our own Wiredelta.com. When visiting our landing page, users face our iconic, vibrant colors encapsulated in a modern and slick design. Right from the home page, they can collect all the information they may need, as we carefully removed all the content that may clutter the user’s perception.
However, one of the most important aspects of our website is the chat function. This important feature is connected to our call-to-action button. Hence, it enables users to reach out directly to our colleagues, instead of spending hours revising and completing exhausting forms.
While computer sciences evolve and IT technologies become more mainstream, expectations on performance, usability and speed become more relevant. As time passes, everything is becoming user-centric, therefore the need for user-centred websites that prioritize learnability, efficiency, and satisfaction. Said qualities that are certainly and obviously not showcased in the Hawaii Emergency Management Missile Alert UI above.
As demonstrated, when having a bad UI design, bad things can happen. For effective UI design, always avoid distractions, and use appropriate language that engages your target audience. Group and label content accordingly, including the use of tags (lots of tagging). Also, refrain from information overload by keeping it simple (think minimalistic). Be consistent regarding colors and performance, and finally but most importantly, make it the most intuitive interface as possible.
One factor you need to remember is that UI is ever evolving so, keep up the pace with the latest trends. At Wiredelta® we thrive to bring UX and UI to a new level. Therefore we aim to provide our clients with the best design that suits their company values. If you need a beautiful website or app that will make your customers remember you, start a conversation with us!