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The Art and Science of Successful User Interface (UI) Design

Amazing or subpar, user interfaces exist everywhere: on websites, mobile devices, your TV, vehicles, even washing machines. If there is a user, there is a user interface. User interfaces exist entirely to perform a task and every element of the interface should exist to facilitate that task. Whenever there is a frustrated human, it's the result of a bad interface.

So, what exactly are the characteristics of a successful UI? Take a deep breath and repeat the following: clear, intuitive, user-friendly, and attractive.

Be Clear

A successful user interface should be obvious and self-explanatory. Clarity is the first and most important job of any user interface. People (that’s what we are, after all. Don’t call me a user!) are impatient, and quite frankly, expect instant gratification. Don't force us to figure out how to use an interface on our own – there's absolutely no room for confusion. Interfaces exist to enable interaction.

While clarity in a user interface is essential, do not fall into the trap of over-clarifying. It's easy to get carried away adding definitions and explanations. People are intimidated by this! Keep things clear and concise. If you can explain a feature in one sentence rather than in three – do it. If you can label an item with one word instead of two – do it. You’ll reduce the mass of the overall interface making it appear more, well… usable.

A successful user interface should be obvious and self-explanatory.

Eliminate Surprises

Don't reinvent the wheel. Successful user interfaces are instinctively understood and familiar. When people are familiar with something and know how it functions, they know what to expect. When it comes to the basics of user interfaces and interaction, now is not the time to get cute or super creative. Preserve those creative juices for higher order concerns.

Form follows function.

A person should be able to predict how an interface element will function simply by looking at it. Identify interface elements that are familiar and implement them.

Common interface elements include, but are not limited to:

  • Input controls: buttons, text fields, checkboxes, radio buttons, drop-down lists, list boxes, and toggles
  • Navigational components: breadcrumb, slider, search field, pagination, tags, and icons
  • Informational components: tooltips, icons, progress bar, notifications, message boxes, and modal windows

Your audience will be able to recognize familiar interface elements and understand how they function. As a result, they will learn how to use the interface more quickly.

Minimize Perceived Complexity

The amount of visual noise in an interface heavily influences perceived complexity. Never underestimate the power of whitespace. Incorporating whitespace into a design helps keep overall visual noise to a bare minimum and increases readability and user comprehension by dividing the content area into digestible nuggets of information.

If you don't need it, eliminate it!

Determine what functions are most commonly used and tuck the rest away.

For example: if your interface has a search function with advanced filters, conceal the advanced filters within a toggle or special drop-down menu. Emphasize what's important and dial everything else back. Reducing visual noise makes an interface appear easier to use and prevents cognitive overload.

How to Create Personas

Looks Matter

A good user interface should be attractive. The visual design of an interface is as much about creating an environment for the user as it is for creating an application worth using.

Visual and graphic design, typography, information architecture, and visualization all play an important role in UI design. Typography and color palette choices and combinations are used to differentiate items, create depth, add emphasis, and help organize information.

Adding visual aesthetics in moderation (seriously, in moderation) such as subtle gradients and pixel thin highlights, create a polished touch that reinforce the function of the user interface without burdening it with obtrusive eye-candy. Your audience will genuinely appreciate a beautifully-skinned interface.

Less is more.

Successful user interfaces are almost invisible, making them the ninjas of design. The most important thing is that they function for what they were intended for, without the unnecessary bells and whistles. They are clear, intuitive, user-friendly, and the interface elements are familiar, easy to access, understand, and utilize.

What websites, mobile devices, TVs, vehicles, even washing machines come to your mind as ninjas of design? Let me know and we’ll take a closer look at what makes each of them successful in a future blog post.

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