The User Interface: The Foundation of Usability and Practicality

User interface design is a highly complex field. With multiple influencing factors contributing to the ultimate success or failure of every interface component, it’s impossible to create a one-size-fits-all user interface. That’s why it’s critically important to consider the design from a multitude of perspectives, identifying the processes and functions that are most closely aligned with the needs and desires of the intended user base – the target audience.

Bottom-Up or Top-Down Usability?

When it comes to usability, the concept can be viewed from the typical bottom-up approach, which primarily defines usability as ease of use. On the other hand, the top-down approach views usability within the context of how well it actually does what it’s supposed to do – is it reliable? Is it usable for its intended purpose?

Essentially, these differing points of view mean that a user interface could be usable, but have little to no actual usefulness. There’s a conflict between the practical and the theoretical, or the human-influenced component that’s more subjective than objective. This is one of the main reasons user interface design requires exceptional skills and the ability to look at a problem from multiple perspectives.

User Perception is Tough to Quantify

Further compounding the issue is that the user’s perception of quality isn’t realistically measurable – because it’s so highly subjective, there’s no real quantifiable way to predict whether the intended audience will find an interface useable or frustrating. For this reason, much of the interface design process emphasizes the more practical perspective, although the user-centric approach has gotten increased attention in recent years.

The problem this creates in user interface design is that finding a true objective measure of quality proves challenging. Implementing qualifiers in the quality equation, such as whether a tool or gadget performs as expected under the specified and intended usage conditions, alleviate some of these issues. This equation, for instance, assumes that the user meets the profile of the target user, with a minimum proficiency level in using similar tools or programs.

Other considerations that influence quality metrics are the context in which the tool is used – for what tasks or processes, specifically, and under what environmental or situational conditions. By combining these elements, it becomes clear whether a design achieves desired quality outcomes.

Incorporating All the Essential Elements of Usability

Whitney Quesenbery of WQ Usability has a similar standpoint on the definition of usability: “A more precise definition can be used to understand user requirements, formulate usability goals and decide on the best techniques for usability evaluations. An understanding of the five characteristics of usability – effective, efficient, engaging, error tolerant, easy to learn – helps guide the user-centered design tasks to the goal of usable products,” she explains.

Quesenbery, along with Kevin Brooks, authored the book Storytelling for User Experience: Crafting stories for better design. The authors outline a unique approach to the concept of designing the user experience, incorporating some elements of marketing processes to obtain user feedback and even develop user personas before initiating the design process. The concept is carried through all the way through the usability evaluation process, enabling designers and engineers to engage users through compelling stories that set the stage for the experience they’re about to have or the problem they’re about to solve.

Balancing Usability and User Experience in User Interface Design

Edge Collective offers some suggestions for marrying these two concepts – usability and user experience – that tend to create so many conflicts in user interface design. While much of the research and insights on user interface design relates to software, the same principles for user centricity can be applied to physical products, as well.

- Remember that 80 percent of the eventual user base will only use about 20 percent of the product features. It’s the Pareto Principle. Emphasize the 20 percent of features that are most likely to be used by the broadest percentage of users.

- Follow Hick’s Law, which claims that the more options a user has, the longer and more difficult the decision. In other words, keep it simple without sacrificing functionality. Include essential elements required for expected capabilities, but nothing more.

- Make it attractive. Really. Users are more likely to enjoy using an attractive interface. Even though it has absolutely nothing to do with quality or performance, it’s the user’s perception that matters.

- Offer feedback. Does the interface incorporate some type of status reading so the user knows exactly where the process stands? It’s important to choose membrane switch manufacturers that offer customizable interface options, such as varying actuarial force and backlighting options, to meet user expectations.

- Ensure a favorable first impression. If there’s a learning curve to using a device or application, set the stage for the user – the first impression heavily influences the perceived user-friendliness of an interface in subsequent uses. When other users are sharing feedback, the remainder of the audience can be deterred from buying products deemed cumbersome or frustrating.

Today’s users have a stronger voice than ever, thanks to social networking and other forms of communication. That means finding the right balance between usability and user-friendliness is critically important to the success of a product. Feedback from the initial user base heavily influences subsequent sales, as today’s savvy consumers take to the web to source both expert opinions and user reviews on the latest gadgets and applications. Make sure the first impression is a good one.

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