If you want to solve a problem people have been banging at for a long time, the last thing you do is look at it from the same angle as everyone else, and that is exactly what tech pundits are guilty of doing. Microsoft in its latest round of Windows 8 updates, seems to have further muddied its interface trying to be all things to all people.
Long ago, I wrote that paradigm awareness is paramount in designing a good UI. However, Microsoft, being blind to both accommodating and leveraging environmental differences decided that slapping the exact same UX on products for 2 completely different use paradigms would be easier for users to learn and more efficient. Based on my experience and user feedback, nothing can be further from the truth.
Finally the tech pundits are waking up to the fact that Windows 8 should not be all things to all people. But they are stopping short of the logical solution I mentioned years ago because they are still looking at computer users using the wrong categorization scheme: business/“productivity” and home/consumer/“casual”/“consumption.”
“Business” & “consumer” are false dichotomies when designing systems. Sure they make sense from one standpoint and when doing some things, but not when designing interfaces. With interfaces you have pretty much one category: getting something, anything done quickly, easily and efficiently as desired. What one wants to do can be anything from analyze statistical data points, or compose a song or create a 3d model to watch a movie, check a setting or read your SoNet feeds. The outcome can be divided between productive uses, where there is something created or manipulated with an output file or other artifact, and simple consumption where information or data is retrieved and consumed, but those definitions should not define the use paradigms.
Both computer companies and tech pundits have fallen into the trap of thinking in terms of types of users when defining UI/UX, not actually looking at the physical interfaces and what actually has to be physically manipulated to facilitate data access. What they are looking at is the top layer of the interaction model where the outcome is considered. What I am talking about is the middle layer between the computer and user, and that is where companies need to focus if they want to deliver a superior UX.
When we strip away all other labels such as “open a spreadsheet” or “listen to a song” we get to the fundamental truth of computing and designing user interfaces: user input begets computer output. When you look at the physical access paradigms and look at the frustration point, the true problems come out. Companies are blind to the easiest way to do things because they fail to recognize the different use paradigms and do not notice the frustration points.
The solution would be splitting the UX along the two use paradigms: touch UI versus Keyboard and Mouse UI. This would enlighten problems and guide UX designers toward making better UI decisions. I would call them “mobile” and “desktop”, but then some people might still not get the real difference. Paramount to a user’s concern is quickly and easily accessing what they want to using the least amount of time to interact with the device.
This means when you have the luxury of a mouse, packing in more targets that mice can easily hit. Whereas if you have a touch screen, spacing out those targets to avoid costly mis-keying and the associated load and back up times. When you have a large monitor this means showing more info per window and clearly marking boundaries and where a person is in the chain of windows, so users can navigate their system settings more easily. When you have a keyboard it means being able to type in a name of something and having the system respond with that file or setting screen quickly.
Whereas in smaller screens without a keyboard, things accessed often must be optimized for quick access, even if they are not directly related. For instance: Networking and Brightness have nothing to do with each other, but they both fall into the “frequently accessed” group when people have to switch networks or dim/brighten their screen. Both should be accessible with as few actions as possible. When you have a keyboard you can also dedicate a key to frequently accessed things. When you have a small touchscreen, you can dedicate a gesture to accessing them. If you can get access down to 1 or 2 actions for common things you are doing great. for more advanced things, getting them to 2–3 actions is awesome. But if a person has to navigate 4 windows and then look at a long list to find one common setting such as their IP in your default interface — you might as well update your resumé. Commonly accessed settings should be easily accessible, but not at the expense of advanced features, or those you might think are more advanced. While a lot of people don’t use mail merge, those that do, certainly do not want the command to activate it buried under 3 submenus.
I still think the best way to design interfaces is to use them a lot and use every single feature many times over. Any time some series of actions is starting to annoy you, it’s a frustration point. Those are signs that portions of your UI need to be cleaned up. This will also root out very simple bugs that frustrate users and make your products look amateur. Lately, I found a crash level bug using a common app that is easily triggered by using an advanced user’s navigation means. This means the person testing and coding it might not have been an advanced enough user to access this common navigation technique (tabbing between fields within a touch UI vs. Touching the field directly), or they didn’t even test that area of the app.