friday-rant

Rant: UI Design and the New Wild West

User interface design has spun out of control. You might call it the Wild West but at least that had summary justice imposed by the likes of Pat Garrett: some of the jokers creating today’s monstrous screens could do with a shootout at the OK Corral or 40 days in the cooler for their wanton acts of aesthetic vandalism.

Item: the new Samsung Galaxy S4 has a bewildering variety of features. It’s the pick ‘n’ mix of smartphones. You don’t want the GMail client or Android media player? No problem, here are our versions that are functionally very similar. I suppose you’ve always wanted to control the device with your eyes or to be able to use gestures?  No, well you can do it anyway, although the reviews seem to suggest that these are gimmicky, half-baked efforts.

So much software today seems to be based on the principle of ‘if you build it they will come’ but they miss an older truth: that if you build a better mousetrap the world will beat path to your door. So many screens today aren’t a better mousetrap; they’re mousetraps with a range of colour and finish options and with springs redesigned to be remotely controlled, report back and generate graphs. They’re the opposite of just what human beings need and where once UI design was about the study of human behaviour and the pursuit of usability, it’s now about the whims of programmers and a constant one-upmanship and race to ads features.

It wasn’t always this way. Back in the day, IBM promoted a framework called CUA, designed to have consistency of look and feel. It was laudable but the arrival of Windows created a new de facto standard. That was OK too although it would have been good if Microsoft hadn’t moved the goalposts of the promised ‘open playing field’ every time it released a new version of the operating system. But when the web hit it was game over for the demanding users who wanted all sorts from the companies to whom they were paying hundreds of thousands of pounds: you know, things like how to open and save a file or find an existing one.

Life in the cloud is wonderful in many ways but the multiplicity of approaches to the front-end is a tax on our time. As more of us adopt the new workspaces of Salesforce.com, NetSuite, Workday, SuccessFactors et al, this will bite us on the backside. There are some lovely touches where UI designers have taken their cues from social networks and some of the paradigms (liking, rating systems etc) are very nice but, all too often, you can’t do the same thing twice when you shift between screens. It’s like reading a newspaper that redesigns every day. It’s a tech version of Fight Club. First rule of user interface standards: there are no rules or standards in user interface design.

This is the age of computers and smartphones that look like the inside of grandma’s caravan: a collection of nicknacks, gewgaws, gizmos, charms and gadgets that don’t do much, do them very well or are laid out in a way that facilitates navigation, sense or order. The answer? I think I have it: a standard that lets those who want it have a consistent experience across services and another mode that like to do the unpaid job of working out the manias of user interface designers.

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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