5 Ways to Make User Interface Design Work for Everyone

It’s a user interface tug o’ war…
When it comes to UI, there is inherently a balance that needs to be struck between the needs of the user and the needs of the client. Sometimes these needs are the same and you have an ideal situation on your hands – congratulations! More often than not, the creation of the user interface becomes a careful balance of what the user wants to see on the page and what needs to be displayed on the page in order to drive business objectives. Here are a few tips and guidelines to help keep things in perspective and allow you to blend the two seamlessly rather than end up with a patchwork quilt for a UI. Each of the examples have their strengths and weaknesses, but each has at least one aspect of user interface design that is done exceptionally well. Here we go:

1. Be Intentional

When we design pages we deal with the users’ intentions. It doesn’t matter who they are in terms of demographics, rest assured they have a goal in mind, and therefore an intention. To ignore this intention in exchange for your goals is “website suicide.” Users must feel that their needs are being addressed even if your intent is to introduce them to new (more lucrative) goals. As a designer, you must balance clear messaging that identifies the user’s intentions with direct access to work flows that take a user to their goals.  Naturally, the presentation of the site’s key business goals also needs to be present. Sites like Mint.com make sure to address the user’s needs and provide him/her with the services they are looking for; if you look more closely, it’s clear that Mint’s business objectives are being presented to the user in a “helpful” way as well.

2. Let Them Simplify

When inventory display is the goal and you are allowing users to search through your data, the last thing that you want to do is oversimplify the process. Searches that yield too few results (or even worse, none) will make users think that you have a lack of inventory or inability to meet their needs. DO help them focus in on a manageable result set, DON’T try to wow them with instant access to the right results.  Sites like Kayak and REI allow users to narrow down their results in a way that is easy to understand and flexible. The user is in control. If they “tweak” the search to a point that they are presented with no results, they can understand why that has happened, and simply broaden their search until an acceptable result is returned.

3. Let Them Customize

No user interface that we create is ever going to be perfect for everyone (try as we might).  The more complex a site is or rather, the more potential intentions that we deal with in our user types, the more important it might be to offer some form of customization.  The extreme examples of this, like iGoogle and Netvibes are very customizable and let a user basically create their own UI, but in many cases, this level of customization can lead to confusion and a poor user experience.  Sites like USAA offer excellent and sometime unexpected amounts of control that allow the user to make more sense of the information being presented to them. They also make commonly used functionalities more prominent and group information in a way that is more meaningful to the user, all without compromising the goals of the website.

4. Make it Visual

As designers, we have our own internal struggle to deal with. Design is everything, but should everything be designed? The answer is no…and yes! Everything within a user interface should be laid out with purpose, meaning and detail, but not everything needs to be done graphically. Too much visual stimulation or too much design can leave the user feeling that the graphical “layer” of a site is getting in their way and making them work harder to access information. If this is the case, then we as designers have lost the balance and have probably lost the user. On the other hand, graphics and visual layout can be used very effectively to make mundane tasks easier to understand or to simplify a page that may otherwise feel overwhelming. Wufoo is a perfect example of a site that has used design and visual balance to make the creation and use of forms into a pleasing (and almost fun) experience. Alternatively, Burton uses graphical feedback to convert a traditional form-based experience into a visual one.

Which brings us to the last point…

5. Make it Fun

How dare we lose sight of this one. It is one of the core elements of user interface design. Of course, fun may be a lofty goal. Some sites demand a level of professionalism or seriousness, but we can always make sure that using the interface of a site is enjoyable, pleasing and at the very least, easy to use.  This balance that is very important, as it allows us to keep a user’s interest long enough to connect them to the information that they need, as well present the information that we want them to see. Sites like Burton and Spectra/MSNBC use design and graphical user interfaces to make accessing information intriguing and engaging (and yes, even fun) without losing usefulness.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, it’s is up to the user interface designer to balance the goals that he/she has in mind for creating a great user experience and the goals that the client company has in creating a great customer experience.  So ask yourself  “Am I sacrificing one or the other in the design I am creating?” If the answer is “yes,” then you need to push your creativity even further, because for every instance where you feel that you are sacrificing, you have identified an opportunity to innovate and use interface design to create a solution that addresses both goals at once.