After talking about User Experience, let’s see my definition of User Interface.
Again, the approach I like best is:
User Interface is the communication language between you and your computer.
It is important to note, that UI is a bidirectional language. The software communicates the following to the user (let’s say it is you as this makes things more personal):
- What the software is capable of
- How you can make the software to do the things you want
- what the software is doing or has done
And in the other direction:
- you can communicate the computer what you want it to do.
Creating a good UI is the mixture of science and art. And not only that, it has its roots in many art forms:
- Graphics – I don’t think I have to explain deeply the place of graphics artists in a UI. Just think of the splash screens, icons, the look of even the most common OS controls, scrollbars, etc. And I even put typography here, which is again both art and science.
- Animation, movies – more and more animations are put in software. The web has been seeing this trend for quite a long time – but even destop operating systems, such as OSX and Windows have more and more animations.
- Literature – when a software communicates via text - for example, displaying help, menus, error messages, etc –, it has to be polite, precise, to the point, but still have to be able to get the complete message across. This is undoubtedly a form of art.
So, where is the science in creating a User Interface? I think you can find a lot more science than expected if you check under the surface. Knowing about the following is quite useful for a UI designer:
- colors and their effects on people’s emotions
- how the eyes and the visual aspects of the brain works – from color blindness to the focus area, the fact that sudden movements can divert the user’s attention, and so on. How can a series of frames be seen as a continuous animation?
- what is easy and what is difficult for a human hand to do – e.g. the hand naturally moves in an arc, it is lot more difficult to move your hand straight. Or see Fitt’s law for an other example.
- how people learn, how short and long term memory functions.
- How long can an average person wait for a result before his mind begins to wander? (The answer is three seconds by the way).
- and of course, there is computer science, too…
It is quite scary that the list above has items from quite a handful of science areas. Biology, cognitive sciences, psychology, anatomy are all parts of the equation. If you add to that the art forms mentioned before – graphics, animation, literature, and the dozens of others I did not think about or mention, you will see that creating great user interfaces really requires interdisciplinary thinking and knowledge – a polyhistor, like Leonardo da Vinci.
As none of us are like him, it is probably best to read about some of these things, and cooperate with peers from other disciplines. It can only make your vision broader – and UX design is an area where a broad vision definitely comes in handy.
Jan 16 2009, 05:27 PM