Don’t Forget about the User

Annoyed user

I expect that, by now, every one knows about the importance of good user interface design. Every business analyst, every tester, every developer, every user, every manager. Every one knows how important it is to make it easy for your user to find what he or she needs.

So why do we still see really stupid design decisions?

How to annoy your users

This blog post was the result of my own frustration with a system quite recently. I logged onto the client portal of a large organisation to check some historical information. This is a common user requirement — it’s like checking the history of your orders at Amazon or Takealot, or the list of claims submitted to your medical aid.

After some searching, I found the “Archive” section where I could draw a report. The principle was simple: select the report type, then select the year, then select the month. Quite acceptable — until I needed to select the month. The list of months looked like this:

September
May
June
October
July
March
February
April
January
August

Really? Are you serious? It is a completely non-sensical sequence! What is the logic behind that order? That is not the order or reverse order in which the months occur. It is not the alphabetical or reverse alphabetical order. It is not related to any financial values, payment dates or processing dates. Who in their right mind lists months in that order? What developer thought this was a good idea? What tester or user didn’t pick it up? Why did I have to waste time trying to find October?

I took a screen shot in case no-one believed me. But I can’t post the image without giving away some clues about the identity of the offending web site. I will disclose that it is a publicly-traded company with almost 20,000 employees and annual revenue of more than R100 billion. In other words, it can afford very good developers.

And it’s got plenty of company. (Anyone who has had to use the MICT SETA site, will know how bad user interface design can get in South Africa.)

The story of 2 systems

Some years ago, a client asked me to evaluate 2 systems for possible use by a particular team.

I had not seen either system before. I had no financial or other interest in the client’s choice. I had redesigned their business processes, and my primary concern was a system to support those processes.

By the way, I am self-taught on all the software that I use. I can generally understand how a system should work. And I know to look for certain options, like exporting to a different format. I am more technically literate than any of the users for whom I was evaluating the system. I didn’t attend a course on either of the systems. I didn’t even read the documentation. I just sat down and spent a few hours trying to execute the normal tasks of the users.

System A had been custom developed for the client by a local supplier. It contained exactly the functionality that they needed. It had already been bought and installed, although none of the users were using it. From that perspective, it was the perfect solution.

System B was an Australian off-the-shelf system. It contained vast amounts of functionality that the users would never need, because it was intended for a different market. It was probably 10x more expensive. And there would not be local support.

What did I recommend? System B. Why? For one reason only: the user interface!

System A was a design nightmare. It ticked every box in the “do not do this” list. The user interface was wildly inconsistent, and unintuitive to the point of just being ridiculous. It felt like a system designed by junior programmers who didn’t have a clue about how to make things work together. I got very annoyed using it. I had no trouble understanding why the users had all ignored it.

System B, on the other hand, was superb. It was easy to use, consistent, intuitive. It felt like a system designed by people who understood and cared about the user.

Design vs user interface design

Web designers spend days fussing with design components. They fiddle with the right shade of blue for hours. But just because you are now satisfied with your choice of font and the round corners of your box, doesn’t mean you have a good design.

Pretty design is one thing; good user interface design is something completely different.

Here’s the truth. Users don’t care about that awesome font, or the fact that you tweaked that image so perfectly. Users care about finding what they need with ease.

Is user interface design a dying art?

Many years ago I bought a book called: “GUI Bloopers: Don’ts and DO’s for Software Developers and Web Designers”. Out of curiosity, I reread the table of contents today. It’s an old book, with a publication date of 2000. Most systems today are web-based, and the book doesn’t focus much on web design. But every principle it lists is still relevant. Yet, despite all the guidelines in books and on the web, there are still so many badly-designed systems.

I wonder if user interface design is even taught at university.

I wonder when last your web developers googled for tips on usability, instead of on how to use a CSS visual design property.

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