Software & Web Development

Rant: UI designers lead and we humbly follow

The user interface is IT’s battleground, a scene of treachery, madness and “man’s inhumanity to man”, as [pauses to Google] ah yes, Robert Burns once put it.

In the dark ages of the early IBM Personal Computer, user interface designers only had text to play with but, looking back, this was not necessarily A Bad Thing. It took a few minutes to get to grips with the basics of a DOS database, word processor or spreadsheet, a few hours to know it fairly well. IBM even attempted to create a standard so that a new user might quickly adapt to a new program with a blueprint called CUA that laid out guidelines for uniformity. But when the graphical user interface loomed this was deemed Not Enough by the great design gods.

The GUI put the cat among the pigeons. ‘We must have icons’ the cry went out. And dialog boxes. And menus. And colour schemes with matching wallpaper. And then we must have right-click menus because what does a mouse button serve if not to add more layers onto the desktop? Microsoft, for it is they, attempted to curb this by asking developers to conform to Office conventions. Some followed, others played rather fast and loose with these screen furniture conventions. So the world learned Windows and Office and followed, albeit grudgingly, when Microsoft itself changed the look and feel of its software because who wants to be left on old, unstable and unsupported software?

And then came the web and designers captured the desktop, letting their imaginations run riot on websites and later cloud applications despite often having had little experience of software usability. And then they did the same on phones, tablets, e-readers, smartwatches and so on and the UXP expert is as common as the burger flipper in today’s world.

Today, we are all victims of whatever UI designers feel like doing. We have to learn to keep up and live with the often odd new precepts of the UI zeitgeist. Skeuomorphic smartphones? Watch faces with glances, notifications, sliders, labels and switches? 3D desktops? White and minimalist cloud applications? Or maybe black, silver and list-based ones? Dense and feature-packed or tools hidden by twisties perhaps?

It’s really up to the developers how we use their software and they have more periods than Picasso, more changes of heart than Sinatra on retirement. So we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly… into the future.


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Torquemada, not his real name, has been casting a jaundiced eye on the technology world since the Sinclair C5 was causing as much excitement as the driverless car today, a 64K RAM pack could turbocharge performance, and Alan Sugar was the equivalent of Elon Musk.

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