Saturday, July 05, 2008

The secret to designing user-friendly interfaces for desktop software

Don Norman on user interface design ...

"By the 1990s, user-friendliness had become so ubiquitous in software development that even the fictional programmers in Douglas Coupland's novel Microserfs named their two pet hamsters Look and Feel. Although Coupland was confident his readers would get the joke, not all system-building companies understand the full implications of the terms.

While interface designers may be obsessed with how pretty their creations look, it is how users feel at the end of a task that really determines how usable a device is, according to human-computer interaction (HCI) guru Donald Norman.

As professor of computer science at Northwestern University, Chicago, with a long history in computer and user interface design, Norman believes it is the system powering iTunes behind the scenes - and not the iPod's circular touch-and-scroll interface - that makes the system so user-friendly.

"What people often miss about the iPod is that it's not about the device," he says. "Apple did a magnificent job of the entire system, from licensing the music to the iTunes website. People don't know it's an SAP website - they think SAP is horrible and complicated and they don't know how to use it. They don't know what they're using with iTunes. And then Apple makes it easy to get the iPod connected to your computer. It's easy to get to iTunes. There's all sorts of trade marks and digital rights management on top of that. And it's all invisible to the user."

Norman's background in psychology goes some way to explaining his focus on the emotional state of users when they interact with technology. Although his first degree was in engineering, he was awarded a doctorate in psychology and forged his early career in the discipline. He still teaches psychology and holds a professor's post at the University of California, San Diego. His early work in psychology focused on cognitive science, an empirical branch of psychology that uses an "information processing" model to uncover the workings of the human brain.

The combination of psychology and engineering helped him find the key to usability.

"It's all about people," he says. "I find the most important thing is the emotional state of the people when they are finished."    (Continued via ComputerWeekly, Lindsay Clark)    [Usability Resources]

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