Friday, July 9, 2010

The Art of Application UI Design

One of my project involves a client that has an excellent idea but not experience in UI design. This often is the beginning of conflicts between “this is what I envision” and “this is what is best design practices”.  There can be a lot of head-bumping, for example for each dialog/page title bar:

  • Customer wants the firm logo and service mark on all of them
    • Wants to really sell this motto
  • Developer wants the name of the dialog/functionality there so the user knows where they are at
    • For a support call, it makes it easy to help, ask for the title at the top
    • It’s allow the user to scroll through dialog titles to select where they want to go (depending on what a dialog is, and the environment)

I do not know the solution, my recommendation is to ask the customer to read some design books as a start.  Some examples of items on my shelf dealing with web design:

  • Web Design in a Nutshell, Jennifer Niederst, O’Reilly
  • Web Navigation, Designing the User Experience, Jennifer Fleming, O’Reilly
  • Creating Killer Web Sites, David Siegal, Hayden Books
  • The Art & Science of Web Design, Jeffrey Veen, New Riders
  • Experience design, Nathan Shedroff, New Riders
  • User-Centered Web Design, John Cato, Addison-Wesley
  • Homepage Usability, 50 Websites Deconstructed, Jakob Nielsen & Marie Tahir
  • Eyetracking Web Usability, Jakob Nielsen and Kara Pernice
  • Prioritizing Web Usability, Jakob Nielsen and Hoa Loranger
  • Designing Web Usability by Jakob Nielsen
  • Train of Thoughts, Designing the effective web experience, John C. Lenker, Jr

There are equivalent books for Windows applications. For new tech items like iPhone and Android there are not design books out – however, in the case of the Android with the mockup being  pseudo-XHTML, a lot of the same design principles apply.


Design is like drawing or painting: there are fads and there are fundamentals. There’s a need to have an ‘eye’ and to be a commercial artist – that is, accepting what the trends are and adapting to them instead of doing your own thing.


Unfortunately today, many developers think they know how to design but fundamentally they have no interest in the art of UI design.  They love to push bytes, not layout.


For myself, before the days of personal computers, I did calligraphy and illumination as a hobby (and won some prizes). The skills for laying out a decorative calligraphic page have been recycled into UI design.  There can be another dimension of UI design, the American with Disability Act (aka Section 508) which in artistic terms is equivalent to working with a limited palette. It means that you have to be creative to make things work well. This is where the commercial artist usually does well, they tend to have less of themselves in the project (but may be fully engaged – the less of themselves means sticking to their own whims).


So where do you go?

  • If you are looking at hiring a graphic artist then ask them to name some of the design books and authors that influence them… IMHO, if Jakob Nielsen is not mentioned, then be wary.
    • A printed page designer may not be a good application developer.  They may be inexperienced with the workflow design issues on a page, accelerators, etc
    • A video designer may not be a good application developer for the same reason as above, plus they are accustomed to dynamic change always happening and catching the user eye on to some aspect of the screen.
  • If you are hiring a developer, inquire about any artistic hobbies (do they have an eye for or interest in art?), as well as the above question.
  • If you are working for a boss as an employee or for equity, then you need to make sure that someone is charged with, and is competent for UI design (this means experience doing this for a few products, have read appropriately, taken courses). In some cases, it may be you – because no one else is interested (big mistake).
    • If it is you, hit Amazon or Abe books and get reading!!!
  • If you are working for a client who have definite ideas of what they want – you should suggest the above books, but bottom line is “The customer is always right”; if the work turns out horrible, never list this client. Just nod and take the money!

Remember the art of development is an art! It is far more than just pushing bytes…. IMHO

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