Design for Interaction: Introduction

The following is the introduction from my 2000 book, Design for Interaction.

“There are only two enterprises that refer to their customers as users and one of them is illegal.” Michael Hammer

It’s a given that Internet design is all about the user. What choice do Web designers have in a medium where lost links can warrant flaming emails from irate users and poor navigational structures result in lost sales, directly impacting the bottom line? Whether you view this warp-speed feedback process as a blessing or a curse, it means that Web sites are constantly evolving, trying out new approaches to stay competitive and respond to user needs. The Web is both flexible and fickle, and as the medium evolves and redefines itself, it will find new strategies to make users happy, and a few million ways to aggravate them along the way.

Most designers outside Web design have not been raised on the same user-based litmus test. Instead, the focus has been on expressing the product itself, the aesthetic of design, or the designer’s own vision. In an age where the options are many and the competition is fierce, these designers may find themselves losing business to others who are doing what it takes to meet the needs of the user.

It makes sense that the concept of user interface design has been tied so closely with Internet and multimedia. “Because of the complexity of Web sites, there’s more information there,” says Jakob Nielsen, User Advocate and principal of the Nielsen Norman Group. “The more information you have, the more complex the design becomes. Therefore, it’s unheard of to design a complicated site without attention to usability or interface. When it happens, the site crashes and burns.”

With internet design, the place where the push and pull between user and site is identified as the interface. Although the concept is more obvious in a medium where the user’s pointing, clicking, and scrolling determines the dissemination of information, the concept of interface design is applicable to every designed object. Be it the emotional quality a product evokes, the interpretation of a written piece, or the experience of navigating a physical space, interface design plays a major role any design process. And unless your designs meet the needs of its users, they stand the risk of being misinterpreted, ineffective, or worse, unusable.

“In the long term, the better design will win,” says Nielsen. “Design Darwinism will determine who survives.” This notion is especially pronounced with Web design, where designers can get instant feedback, either directly through email, or indirectly, through reduced traffic and sales. Although less immediately obvious, interface design is a factor in all other design, and the success of a designed product is largely determined by the way the user interacts with it and vice versa.

For a classic example of user interface design failures outside the Web realm, look no further than the blinking 12:00 clock on your family room’s VCR. “The running joke with VCRs is that no one can program them,” Nielsen says. “Half of the machine’s utility goes unused because it’s just too difficult to do. The truth is, it’s not to difficult to do use, it’s just not designed like the average user thinks. Statistics show that VCRs are only used for renting videos, very rarely for programming.”

In this case, poor user interface design interferes with the usability of this product“if it were designed better, users would be able to use it better. In fact, if there was a VCR that effectively solved the problem of communicating more effectively through its user interface, it would be a top seller. Since the feedback for products like VCRs isn’t as easy as it is on the Web, the product design ultimately suffers because designers assume that the user knows how to use the product.

“Manufacturers tend to think that the using their products is easy,” Nielsen says. “They aren’t immediately being penalized for manufacturing bad products. With the VCR, when you take it home is when you discover you don’t know what buttons to push. But the store already has your money, they don’t care. To do something about it, you’ve got to deal with the possibility of taking it back or contacting customer service.”

Although you may think it’s a blessing to not be reminded at every turn of your design’s shortcomings, this is something that Web designers can teach all design disciplines. The fact that Web sites frequently receive and use feedback from customers means that they are constantly able to improve and evolve to meet the needs of their needs. Users will naturally gravitate towards design that communicates well with them and offers an intuitive approach.

How does a successful user interface improve a product? “In some ways, the user interface is the product,” Nielsen says. “If people can’t use a product, it might as well not exist.” This concept is especially true in a world where every marketplace“from publishing to electronics“is highly competitive.

There are a couple of standards that identify effective design across the board, regardless of media or discipline. The first consideration is determining who the user is. From here, the design will follow. The design must be as broad or narrow as necessary to accommodate the intended users.

Once you figure out who your users are, it’s necessary to determine what they are trying to achieve. Web sites provide a great paradigm for understanding this concept. “What users are trying to achieve is, curiously enough, undervalued by designers,” Nielsen says. “Often, a site is designed around what the company and designers want them to do. People come to a Web site for a purpose“if you don’t deliver on that purpose, they will leave. You need to fulfill their requirements, meet their needs. If you can’t do what they want on a basic level, you’ll never get a chance to meet their secondary needs.”

Possibly the most important thing to keep in mind is that there’s no recipe that’s going to make your design appropriate for all applications and users. Vague, bland design fails by not appealing to anyone and design whose interface is too honed in on a specific demographic effectively alienates other applications. Simply put, “There’s no such thing as good design,” says Nielsen. What to do? Simple. Listen to your user and observe them interacting with your design. Instead of designing for the world at large, other designers, or even your client, think to who will be using your product and go from there.

Graphic designers have been reared on a variety of formulaic methods and approaches for successful design. Any design magazine or class references design in terms of white space, balance, aesthetic, and message. Although these concepts are crucial to well-designed pieces, it’s necessary to make these decisions with one eye to the consumer. But more infrequently, the ideas driving the design revolve around how the piece is designed for and will relate to the user.

It helps to think of any designed piece as an interface, be it a book, shampoo bottle, retail store, or Web site. In order to make a connection with the user, the design’s interface must achieve its mission, be it communicating information through the printed word, dispensing a product, projecting an image, or creating a space that’s easy to navigate. Changing the focus from the designer’s aesthetic to the user’s need allows the product to be designed in a way that helps the user succeed. From here, the aesthetic considerations will follow.

Interface expert Nielsen identifies five usability attributes designers should heed when creating a design interface, no matter what their medium. “Ease of learning is the first consideration,” says Nielsen. From the first time a user interfaces with a designed product, its use should be intuitive and simple. When applied to Web sites, this concept means that the user is able to navigate the links well, always stays oriented within the site, and is able to easily access the information. When considering the interface of a magazine, this means providing users with a table of contents that effectively previews the content and uses typefaces that are easily readable, yet work in tandem with the design to convey the spirit of the copy and publication. With a product like a computer, it means not requiring the user to spend hours with a manual figuring out how it works. Users don’t want to spend their time learning how to use a product“it’s the designers’ job to make the process intuitive.

Nielsen’s second golden interface usability attribute is designing for efficiency of use. “Once a user learns how to use something, the next time they return to it, they should be able to zip right though it,” he says. This means not cluttering up the interface with too many extraneous options that serve more to confuse the user than aid the process. With any successful interface, there should really be one efficient method of doing things, making the process easy and intuitive, and as unconfusing as possible.

The third consideration Nielsen cites is memorability. Again picking on the beleaguered VCR , this means the process for taping a television show shouldn’t involve a complicated series of instructions users have to go through each time they want to tape a show. Just because a user got it right once doesn’t mean that she’s going to have the same success the second time. Instead, the process should be simple and memorable, an intuitive series of steps that users will easily follow the first time as well as the next time, without having to learn the entire process over again.

Nielsen’s fourth usability attribute is to create an interface with “few user errors and no severe consequences for errors.” Although this sounds like obvious“after all, who would create a designs that encourages users to fail“this tip underscores the need for user testing. Just because a design makes sense to everyone in your design studio doesn’t mean that it will make sense to the average user. “People will make mistakes,” Nielsen says. “A human being is not perfect. But an interface needs to do everything to prevent user mistakes and, when they do happen, make them easy to recover from. Every time you hear about human error when it comes to design, it is really a designer error.”

The fifth, and most subjective usability attribute to consider is the satisfaction of the user. “It’s more of a frivilous quality, but it’s important for any designer to consider during the design process,” Nielsen says. “You want people to like what they’re doing. With the example of the Web, it’s a very voluntary activity“no one’s forcing you to use it. There are so many different sites users can go to. Why should they stay at a site that’s awkward or hard to use?” This is where the more ethereal qualities of interface design come into play, no matter what the medium.

Although it’s impossible to please everyone all of the time, it’s important to use an interface’s design to simply empower the user to get from the product what they need, while reflecting the image or spirit that the product supports. Although conventional design has a lot to learn from Web design, the Web can learn from other media. For instance, in most cases, it’s not wise to strictly choreograph the user’s experience through the site. “The Web is an environment where users can compose their own story,” Nielsen says. “This is where sites can learn from urban design, theme parks or other environments where people can move around and construct their own experience. With an interface, the designer is establishing a foundation for user experience. One of the challenges is giving up that control. Designers think they know best. Although it shouldn’t be a complete free-for-all, design shouldn’t be a completely controlled environment, either.”

Although there are an infinite number of qualities that will cause users to fail to connect with a product from a design perspective, there is one that Nielsen considers to be user interface design’s most lethal. “The main deadly sin designers step into is designing for themselves,” Nielsen says. “The belief that ÂIf I like it, others will like it’ or ÂIf I can use it others will be able to, too’ is the wrong approach.”

The truth is that designers are almost always markedly different from the users of their products. A Web interface will naturally seem intuitive to the person who designed it. But the real test is when you put the typical users together to the same task.

This analogy can be applied to any designed object“it is necessary to step aside from the design itself and look at it as a functional object. This admonition also cautions against overdesigning. More often than not, a complicated design is created for its aesthetic qualities. But when design takes over a project, the interface becomes cluttered and confusing. When it comes to interface design, less is more: It’s best to keep the design independent of any superfluous elements, keeping the focus on function. Simply put, all design elements should serve a purpose.

With all of these weighty considerations during the design process, there is one simple thing you can do to make sure you’re on track“user testing. “Get a set of representative users to do a series of representative tasks,” Nielsen says. “Observe what they do, see how fast they do it, see if they like it, listen to their comments while using it.”

But before you call a focus group, see if it would work with the product you’re testing. “One of the biggest mistakes in the computer field is using focus groups,” Nielsen says. “Sitting around a table discussing something isn’t interactive. It’s the experience of the user that counts.”

In other words, remember what software engineer and user interface author Lowell Jay Arthur said, “The least flexible component of any system is the user.”