Seamless User Interface Design
Everyone has stared at an icon that looks more like abstract art than guidance on what will happen when it’s pressed. Too many times, users click their way through a website, going deeper and deeper only to discover there’s no easy way out except to close the browser and start over. There is an app for everything now, even for things users do not need apps for. The intersection of the IoT, the miniaturization of tech and AI increasingly challenges designers to create intuitive, easy-to-use interfaces and user experiences that solve bona fide problems and add value.
The hand as stylus
Today, hands remain the primary instrument of interface design; a user’s hands are their styli. Using small, precise and coordinated fingertip actions where consumers press, double tap, swipe, pinch, sign and tap on virtual keypads require little to no haptic feedback. Technology has enabled miniaturization across all aspects of the digital device landscape, but the fact remains that hands have not shrunk in size, nor have hand function capabilities evolved. User interface designers have reached an inflection point where miniaturization meets ease-of-use, beyond which has a dramatic impact on usability.
Hands come in different sizes and capabilities. The difference between a small 5th percentile female hand and 95th percentile male hand can be as much as 1.75 inches in length and 1.25 inches in breadth. Differences in finger lengths, diameters, dexterity, reach and tactile sensitivity directly impact a user’s ability to control and operate haptic interfaces. Differences in device size and shape impact what grip architectures are used and the amount of grip security. Handheld device design that does not consider these variations inevitably results in unacceptable levels of input errors, accidental drops damaging the equipment and adding frustration and confusion to the user experience. The mobile phone industry is a good example of what happens when graspability is ignored in the design of smart phones. Unlike any other industry, this lack of usability has spawned a billion-dollar category of protective mobile phone cases that bring back grip features as well as ballistic packaging that protect from drops because the original phone form is not hand friendly. Why aren’t phones originally designed to fit and interact with the hand?
Aging complicates these natural variations in size and hand function capability. When designing interfaces targeting toddlers and youths, hand function is still unfolding and legacy experiences are nonexistent. Their ability to perform dynamic actions such as tap and drag or double click within a certain time window are challenging because their motor skill development—how the brain talks to the muscles—is not fully developed and honed. In contrast, consumers who are more than 50 years old increasingly see hand function decay. Through natural aging, everyone experiences decreases in finger strength, range of joint motion, tactile discrimination and sensitivity, and targeting accuracy. Further complicating these natural aging processes is a cohort that commonly experiences disease states that further impede hand function, such as diabetes and arthritis. Products targeting both ends of the age spectrum must consider these laws of nature.
Can you hear me now?
Alexa, Siri, Google, Cortana and other virtual assistants are becoming pervasive. In consumer electronics, they provide an easy and intuitive hands-free interface. In our homes, they allow us to call people, play music, control lights, provide news flashes and search the web without physical engagement.
The most fascinating intersection of virtual assistants is with the aging population. Elders are quick to embrace Alexa, Siri and Google because it eliminates two core factors that challenge their quality of life in day-to-day living: tactile interfaces and physical presence. Interestingly, the realism these assistants project to elders commonly results with elders attempting to dialogue with the device after the initial call to action, only to realize it’s just an injection molded piece of technology on the shelf without a brain.
Virtual assistants in healthcare is evolving at a much slower pace. Hospitals, and in particular surgical suites, present the most challenging environment for leveraging this technology. Within surgery, the cacophony of sound—from conversations between the surgical team members, beeps from devices, and piercing alarms—challenge the best technology to discriminate between commands and competing background noise. The added challenge using virtual assistants in healthcare is the cost of being wrong. To mitigate use errors, virtual assistants must be supplemented by user protocols that call for a deliberate visual check to ensure the command was interpreted correctly. This cue can be argued that it really doesn’t provide significant value or speed, and only introduces room for use errors.
There are examples in healthcare design where a virtual assistant performs well. Portable defibrillators have proven to be highly effective in walking users through a simple sequence of steps to shock a heart attack victim, while under high stress. Surgical systems successfully use interactive talk through tutorials for system set up, operation and post-surgery cleaning. The most effective use of video and/or static illustrations or photographs focus and prescribe the desired user behavior.
Virtual assistants have also brought some humor to texting and emails. Sometimes Siri, Alexa, Google and Cortana are a little hard of hearing, misinterpreting what the user said, and sending off bizarre text messages that leave the receiving party wondering. Regardless, the prevalence of virtual assistants will continue. The technology improves daily by providing more accurate interpretation of language, accent and pronunciation, as well as dramatically improving the discernment between one’s voice and background noise.
Perception is reality
Humans are very good at pattern recognition, but confusion and doubt are easily injected without clear and concise visual cues to usability. Effective icons distill the essence of the action required by the user into a robust simple graphic. A user’s perception of on-screen information is hierarchical. In 1967, Neisser’s research on the perception of print showed that people process from feature to letter to word. The “feature” in this perception continuum is the most important element in developing effective user interfaces by providing context to frame the behavioral outcome.
Two excellent icon design examples include the common battery charge level and wireless network indicators found on mobile devices daily. Both have effectively extracted the fundamental content of what they represent. At a glance, the battery icon unambiguously communicates its charge level by how full the battery icon is itself, and does so easily at a size no greater than 1/8 of an inch long. Similarly, both in size and in simplicity, the wireless network icon communicates two essential pieces of information: the presence of a wireless connection and its strength.
Iconography design is a science not an art. It requires an exacting distillation of what the icon represents, the essence of its purpose. Through symbolic messaging icons need to communicate status, and the desired behavioral outcome when viewed or activated, leaving no ambiguity in the consumer’s mind.
Eating the elephant chunk by chunk
Parallel to perception is the ability to process information. Humans don’t do well with a long series of steps or strings of alphanumeric. Human factors engineering research conducted decades earlier show that five chunks of information is the magical spot for consumption of information and memory retention. Beyond seven chunks of information increases the degree of difficulty and dramatically erodes memory.
How information is presented also directly impacts user performance. A 10-digit telephone number (314-721-0700) is hard to remember, but by chunking it into four numbers—three hundred fourteen, seven hundred twenty-one, zero, seven hundred—retention and recall dramatically improve. Complexity is reduced when provided with two meaningful super chunks: the area code and suffix.
Good design demands that complicated deep interfaces be broken down into meaningful steps and sub steps, thereby allowing users to easily navigate and drill in and out of the interface with ease, speed and intuitiveness.
Good user interface design builds on users’ past experiences. These past experiences provide cognitive maps, a mental representation that codes, stores and aids the recall of information about relative locations, attributes of phenomena and spatial temporal relationships. Legacy experiences build a set of coded behavioral responses that are triggered by physical and/or aesthetic design cues embedded in a product’s design. This requires identifying patterns and behaviors that are intuitive and make sense to users, working the way people think, feel and behave. At best, removing the user’s need for instructional materials and at worst, minimizing the user’s learning curve.
Ecosystem and niches
A common oversight in user interface design is not considering the entire ecosystem that surrounds the product or service being developed. This includes all user touch points, whether physical, haptic or acoustic. Designers must consider on-device hard and soft keys, icons, apps, product website, instructional materials and secondary packaging. Each of these touch points provides a design opportunity to communicate with the user through both functional aesthetics of how the product works and guidance cues on the most efficient way to interact with it. To complete the user experience, designers look at the totality of all interactions to ensure there is continuity and consistency across all functional and aesthetic qualities of the user experience.
A holistic design strategy is essential to creating unique and ownable brand experiences.
Keep it simple
User insight and ethnographic research techniques allow new product development teams to study and understand why people do what they do. This research illuminates user reasoning in order to create value, meaning and delight while also eliminating items that impede usability. A strategy that begins by focusing on what makes people tick, a user centered strategy defines what is needed and what is noise. It challenges today’s knee-jerk reaction to rush off and create an app for everything, to first ask if an app is needed in the first place.
Good design is sensible, meaningful and relevant. It is also cost effective, eliminating expensive re-engineering loops to get it right the second time around. When the design is right and perfect in all respect, it fits a user perfectly, performs flawlessly and provides an emotional and meaningful connection. Good design is a magnet that attracts customers and creates brand loyalty that in turn drives revenues and shareholder value.