Informing the IBM Community

Top Ten user interface design tips, part 2


UI design tips

In the second part of his essential UI guide, Nick Hampson discusses why books and paper are good, how imitation can be valuable and why you should never be afraid to be wrong. Read on for tips 6-10 on how to be a design hero…

6. A little study goes a long way

Let’s get this on the table: you don’t need a degree, MBA or any piece of paper in design to become an expert. What you need are lots of pieces of paper glued together with text written on them. You know what I’m referring to – books.

I started in UI and UX design in 1999. I was curious about how I could really make a difference in terms of user productivity. Today, I still read loads but you don’t need a library; just a couple of simple books will give you enough info to really make a difference (see my recommended reading list).

7. Prototype on paper

This is a fundamental stumbling block for a lot of developers. If you begin prototyping on screen, you will almost certainly be constrained by what is in front of you and unlikely to think outside the box to solve any issues that might arise.

Start with a pen and paper. You can scribble, throw it away if you get it wrong, jot down alternate ideas and prevent yourself from getting bogged down in too much detail (like changing the colour of a button). If you have to start again, it’s just a piece of paper that you are tossing aside.

Research shows that people who prototype in their development tool rarely delete their work and start from scratch, they are too constrained by the work they have already done. Paper is also great when it comes to showing others your ideas as it forces the viewer to focus on how the app will work and not what it looks like (everyone can see it’s just a sketch).

It also sets realistic expectations as no one will expect the final version the day after you have presented a sketch (except, perhaps, at looksoftware…).

 8. Iterate to fine-tune

Always, always, always work quickly. Get your design out to people for feedback then refine it. If it’s a large app, focus on a single module or just bare-bones functionality to get something out quickly. You’ll get feedback much faster and it often stops you from putting effort into areas that have little value (which is all too common).

I usually aim at getting a bare-bones system out in just a few days with a couple of value-adds, perhaps one of each type. I use reaction to the value-adds and feedback to focus the second iteration on areas that I know will add value.

 9. Consistency is good

During my years in IBM i, it amazed me just how creative developers are. This is both a good and bad thing. Good when they are solving business problems and bad when they refuse to follow a standard.

Users love consistency. It enables them to learn one app and apply their knowledge of that to the next. It minimises the learning curve and requires a smaller mental app model. This is why I try to mimic, as much as is possible, popular mobile or desktop applications.

This is not because I am too lazy to come up with an original design, it’s because the familiar interface is a powerful tool. Don’t be put off if you are criticised for mimicking popular applications in your design. If it helps your users work more efficiently, then you have met your goal.

10. Be a user

To ensure that a mobile design really hits the mark, every developer should grab a smartphone and/or tablet and use them in the same way that users would.

Don’t just test your app lightly, really test its usability. Get some real jobs and enter/update them. See if your design enhances the actual process (up-front research makes this much less painful). Never be afraid to be wrong. It’s a natural, human thing. We can’t be right all the time (well, at least I can’t).

I’ve often talked to companies that start with: “We want a browser-based solution”. While this is all good (I love CSS and any excuse to get in there and do a cool demo), and we have a great tool for that, it’s important to stop and ask why.

Why a browser? Are the users remote end-customers, only occasionally accessing the system? Are they travelling and need access from any PC on the planet?

Typically, the answer is: “We don’t want to have to deploy an app”, and often the users are internal everyday staff. In IT, it seems like a simple decision to make life easier but if you step in your users’ shoes for a day and really evaluate the productivity of both options you may make a different choice.

I hope my Top 10 user interface design tips spark a few ideas, confirm/question your current approach or help you to plan your design projects. What would your top tips be? Drop me line.

Nick Hampson has been modernising IBM i applications for over 15 years, specialising in creating quality users experiences. Designing for desktop, web, tablet and smartphone, Nick works with customers to increase the reach, integration and business value of their existing IBM i applications.

Nick speaks world-wide for looksoftware at a variety of events including COMMON, NiSUG and lookahead. Read his blog – UI, UX, You what?

Read Top Ten user interface design tips, part 1 on PowerWire.

This article originally appeared on the looksoftware website.

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