# Wednesday, 17 December 2008

I mean it, honestly! I have been programming for so long and have built so many apps and have looked at, and used 100’s of (web and desktop) apps, that I no longer know what a good user interface design looks like anymore.  I have lost my objectivity.


Think of it this way.  As a user, I have been using Outlook and Outlook Web Access (OWA) daily for I don’t know how many years, but yet it (read: both) “feels” like a good user interface design to me.  Maybe I have been “programmed” by using it so much that I just feel that way.  Which is maybe why I dislike the ribbon, but that’s another story.


As a side comment, Jeff Atwood at Coding Horror wrote an article called, “Avoiding The Uncanny Valley of User Interface” saying, or at least I think it says from a summary point of view, that web applications should not try to mimic desktop applications.  Clearly, I don’t get it.  I believe the whole point to OWA is to indeed mimic the desktop (i.e. Outlook) as closely as possible so that I, the user, don’t have to “think” about the differences between the two email applications.  In fact, I think I would be quite pissed, as a user, that the desktop email application I use everyday and the web mail application were so different that I would have to then learn two different ways of working with email, calendars, tasks, folders, etc. Don’t make me “think” about the differences, I just want to “use” the applications.


I also read most of the comments form Jeff’s blog, and a few made sense to me (see below), whereas I think most were offering up their personal opinions, while valid, I know my job, as a programmer, is to give my clients what they want.  Oh sure, I have my own ideas, like many programmers, but after spending a lot of time in the trenches talking to customers over 17 years, it is clear to me that they are paying me money to get what they want – even if they don’t know what they want. “do you get me, sweetheart?”


I really like Shane’s comment:


Yeah, that "Google Maps" web app thing that acts like a desktop app, that'll never work. People only want web apps that act like web apps damn it! And all the cool AJAX features in Facebook/MySpace/Gmail, no one really wants those. They would prefer to wait for the entire page to refresh every time they make any kind of change. Or wait for a huge page to download just to make sure the page contains every bit of data that they could possibly want. Because they would prefer their "web apps" to act just like the crappy 1st generation web apps that were around before they even knew what the Internet was. Pfft.

Shane on December 17, 2008 05:55 AM


Or how about Daath’s comment – sounds like a Pragmatic Programmer to me:


For a software developer - yes.
For an average user - no. An average user simply doesn't care if it's real, doesn't search for differences, and for him/her it would be the best if the web application and the desktop application would behave the same, because it would be easier to get used to.

For a developer a software is close and personal, like another person for everyone. That's why it feels unnatural for him/her to use web apps that try to mimic desktop apps' behavior. But for an average user, web and desktop apps are nothing but utilities, things that have to be used in order to achieve a goal. They don't care, it's nothing personal for them. (Sorry for breaking your heart, you just have to realize this and move on with your life. :))

Daath on December 17, 2008 08:08 AM


And finally, Brian says it all:


What are you guys talking about! The purpose and intent of Ajax and RIA technologies is to enable web UI designers with the ability to do things that would be considered "closer" to desktop application operations than "traditional" web applications.


That’s because "traditional" stateless web application user interfaces sucked. What are web application expectation anyway? Type stuff... submit(postback)...wait...view result. I say rock on web ui designers! Give me drag-drop, give me background updating panels (event-driven updates). I am still waiting for some of those other crusty old desktop features like great undo/redo functionality and the ability to paste an image directly into an email body, but as they keep working the technology I am sure it's not far off.


For users, web apps accel because of collaboration and accessibility. Users dump outlook for web-based email so they can read their mail from home, work, school, wherever. Certainly not because Outlook's desktop user interface sucks. Users have had to trade off rich interaction for those benefits. Today, that trade off isn’t any where near as bad as it once was. Today many web apps simply rock. And that’s because of the energy and effort by many folks to bring rich (or desktop-like) interactions to the web. So let’s dispense with the noise that this is a bad thing.

Brian H on December 17, 2008 08:09 AM


Hallelujah, I say.  I just don’t understand why Jeff would write such a blog post.  Which brings me to my point, rather than hypothetically avoiding the uncanny valley, I want to hear about and see pictures of “good” user interface design and most importantly, why they are good.  I mean convincingly good.


I work for an ecommerce company that designs and builds large scale ecommerce web applications.  When it comes to good user interface design, our customers are predominantly always asking for two things:


  1. Can our customers (easily) find the product(s) they want easily with the minimal amount of mouse clicks? This all about navigation and search.


  1. Can our customers (easily) buy the product(s) they want easily with the minimal amount of mouse clicks? This is all about conversion, i.e. turning “browsers into buyers” as quickly as possible.

The point I am making is in my ecommerce web app world, there is a purpose to the user interface design, the key word being design.  The ecommerce web app is “designed” to fit the requirements for the intended end users.  We, as programmers, use a lot of interesting technologies, like AJAX, to fulfill these requirements, but the end user could care less what technologies or techniques are used to fulfill these two requirements.


Bad user interface design to me is the opposite of fulfilling these requirements in the context of what I do for a living. And if I put my customer hat on while I am shopping online, if I can’t find what I am looking for easily, I give up.  As a programmer, I give up even sooner, particularly with a web application that is loaded with so many links, 5 navigation bars, and tons of “stickers”, I already know this is going to be really painful to find what I want, so I just give up - sooner.  The consequence is that ecommerce site just lost my revenue, which hits the bottom line.  Everything else after that is irrelevant.


Another reason why I think Outlook for the desktop and Outlook Web Access for the web are so successful is because if you use the desktop app and then have to use OWA, the learning curve is almost zero, so it is instantly usable and adopted by the “user.”  I.e. I can find what I want easily and I can transact my email easily – no think time differences between the two apps.


I can give another example of good user interface design coming from my 5 year old daughter, who plays web based games on the internet and locally on my computer (i.e. “desktop” games).  She already knows that it is either going to be the arrow keys or the WASD keys to move around in the game.  I only had to show her once and it is consistent with the many games she plays.  Adult note – yes, I (or more correctly, my wife) limit the time and type of games she can play on the computer.  Heck, she even knows how to hit the green “play” button in Visual Studio to run some of the XNA games I am working on, but that is another story.


One criterion that makes for a good user interface design, even if it was arbitrarily chosen, is consistency.  Example, the ubiquitous “File” menu, in and of itself, in addition to that it is the same for Outlook desktop application and OWA, plus many, many other desktop applications that share the File, Edit, etc. paradigm.  It is a bit strange to me that not too many web applications take this same approach.  Why not?  And I mean from a user perspective, not a programming one.


Of course, Microsoft broke this paradigm with the ribbon, but I think they were actually trying to solve a different problem then good user interface design, see Office 2007 and the Killer Ribbon.


So what makes a good user interface design?  I am genuinely asking.  Like I say, I am so close to it that I feel I have lost objectivity.  Not completely mind you, but as a firm believer in , I have a sense that our industry has moved off the mark somewhat and after reading Jeff’s post, and some of the comments, there are a group of software folks that seem to have forgotten the basic “aesthetics versus function” argument.  E.g. if the iPod was not so easy to use from a user perspective, it would not matter how cool it looked.  Some may see it differently, but my ecommerce customers see it the same way as well.  If the ecommerce site is “flashy” but no-one can find or buy anything easily, then it is nothing more than eye candy as opposed to an ecommerce business, producing revenue.


So what makes a good user interface design?  Show me one (links, pictures, descriptions, all good) and tell me why.  Thanks!

Wednesday, 17 December 2008 23:06:47 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)  #    Comments [6]
© Copyright 2010 Mitch Barnett - Software Industrialization is the computerization of software design and function.

newtelligence dasBlog 2.2.8279.16125  Theme design by Bryan Bell
Feed your aggregator (RSS 2.0)   | Page rendered at Wednesday, 19 May 2010 23:41:23 (Pacific Daylight Time, UTC-07:00)