Designers like to say that there’s only one truly intuitive user interface: the nipple. Everything else has to be learned. Anyone who’s ever had to teach a confused newborn how to eat however, knows even that isn’t true. The challenge for any designer then is to produce buttons, knobs, menus and signs that allow users to apply functions with the minimum of fuss. Some, like MySpace, got it horribly wrong with ugly modules and confusing functionality, a trick that Facebook tries to copy with every redesign. Occasionally though, a company gets it exactly right, not only allowing users to get what they want (almost) instinctively but also setting a new standard for others to follow. Here are five of the best:
After a period in which Yahoo! ruled the Internet with a directory made up of categories, odd sub-categories and long descriptions that never seemed to have anything to do with the content you were looking for, Google’s search field and submit button was always going to be a winner. It couldn’t have been simpler (except perhaps for the “I feel lucky button” — really, does anyone ever use that?), allowing users to enter their search term and see a targeted list immediately. There were no checkboxes, no radio buttons and if you wanted to go Boolean, you could enter the symbols without hitting the advanced search page. Even the results were helpful.
Since then, things have got a little more complex with links to images, video, maps and other Google tools cluttering the page but even these have been shoved away to make the text field prominent. For text input, one field and one (not two) buttons is now the standard.
Apple didn’t invent the mobile phone. It didn’t even invent touchscreens. But, as always, it took existing technologies and combined them in a way that created an entirely new experience.
Before the launch of the iPhone in June 2007, much had been said about the increasing complexity of mobile phones — and much too had been said about how difficult those additional functions, from Web surfing to games playing, were to reach and use. Apple’s use of icons to open applications, an onscreen keyboard, and touchscreen Web navigation created a new future for smartphones. Nokia and other manufacturers might have to battle the giant in the room but without Apple’s revolution in UI, the fight would have been limited to executives flashing their RIMs.
If setting a standard for others to follow is one sign of an effective user interface, then Delicious Library’s wooden bookshelves have to qualify as a great design. Like other great designs, the library is simple, intuitive and familiar. Instead of displaying content as a list of menu items, the e-books the program contains are placed on a graphic background designed to resemble wooden bookshelves. Users get to enjoy book covers in the same way they do in a bookstore, and the books themselves are accessible with just a click.
The design of the shareware became such a standard that other digital book apps asked designer Wil Shipley if they could use it on their apps too. One company, however, used it without asking. When Steve Jobs showed off iBooks on the iPad in January 2010, the program’s design looked remarkably familiar. Perhaps that shouldn’t have been a surprise though. Many of Delicious Library’s staff now work for Apple.
A good rule for designers — and others — to live by is “if it ain’t bust, don’t fix it.” So when Microsoft launched Word 2007 with a completely revamped user interface, the reaction was generally negative. Gone were the static buttons and drop-down menus, replaced by scrolling ribbons located under newly titled tabs. For users familiar with the traditional design the new Word meant having to learn almost from scratch a program which they were used to using without a second thought.
The idea behind the redesign, said Microsoft, was to make visible features that users requested but which were already present in the program. The company, said Microsoft, was constantly receiving emails asking why a particular function wasn’t available in Word when in fact it was buried several menu items deep.
The biggest challenge for the design was familiarity with the old way of doing things. Once users got used to the ribbons though , and discovered where to find the features they needed, it became clear that Word 2007 was a much better design than Word’s previous versions. It would have been better though if it had been Word’s original design as well.
If simplicity is a sure sign of great design then the computer mouse has to be in the running too. A ball that registered movement and a couple of buttons for selection and feature access made using a computer as simple as moving a hand and lowering a finger. The addition of a trackwheel, a third button and side buttons for gamers hasn’t altered the ultimate simplicity and usability of the mouse. Even Apple’s own line of mice, with its distinctive single button (later replaced by a scroll ball and four programmable buttons), failed to show up the inherent benefits of a design that was already familiar and simple to use.
The rise of laptops however, has gone some way towards killing off mice but even their replacement — the touchpad — is modeled on the same principle, and shows that good user interface principles remain even as the technology changes.
Good UI design is always a challenge. What developers find natural and intuitive can often be the result of familiarity with their field and a ready understanding of how to use their own equipment. It’s not until the products hit the market — and users start tripping over their thumbs — that the effectiveness of a design is really tested. These five designs passed the test and often made it a bunch of later products easier to use too.