Monday, February 26, 2007

The digital challenge: Making easy-to-use devices

The International Herald Tribune's take on usability ...

"What makes something well designed? Millions of words have been written on the subject, but if you boil them down to basics, you end up with four questions. What does it do? How does it look? What's new about it? How will it affect the environment?

Plus change. Environmentalism excepted, that checklist has been more or less the same for the last century, whether it's applied to cars, clothing, or just about anything else. But these days you need to add a new question, at least you do if the object is a digital one, like a cellphone or a computer. You should ask how you're going to use it; because, when it comes to digital technology, whether it's easy — or brain-fuddlingly complicated — to get the thing to work will matter just as much as what it does, and how it scores as eye candy.

There's a name for this: user interface design, or UI for short. Its goal is to ensure that all of us can use digital devices simply and intuitively, regardless of how techno- savvy we are. As we're spending more and more time with digital products, UI is becoming one of the most important areas of design, but it's also one of the trickiest to judge. When user interface design is good, it's hassle-free and we don't have to think about it; but when it's bad, it can make our lives hell.

Here's what I mean. Take an irritatingly common example of bad UI design — the over-complicated cellphone. We've all had one. You upgrade your old phone to a snazzier one made by the same manufacturer, only to discover that: a) you've got to learn how to use it all over again; b) some of your favorite features on the old phone have been scrapped; and c) the same function requires even more scrolling and button pressing than it did last time.

The 99 percent of us who don't have doctorates in software engineering tend to blame ourselves for techineptitude. I certainly did, until I discovered that even my techiest friends couldn't access voice mail on their new cellphones either. Then I realized that the problem wasn't down to me, but to lousy UI design."    (Continued via International Herald Tribune)    [Usability Resources]

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