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While many of you know sites like this or the now departed Interface Hall of Shame (static mirror here) which target generic bad UI design. Too few developers really think about their specific user audience. And fewer developers still actually talk to their end users. As UI designers and software developers we owe it two our end users to understand them. Often great, well thought out software can be crippled by seemingly small UI blunders.

Case in point: Children's game/educational software. A lot of children's software is targeted at pre-reading levels, 2 thru 5 year olds are now exposed to a whole host of software targeted to them based on popular TV shows. While 4 and 5 year olds are starting to learn to read, certainly they have not fully mastered it; and certainly 2 to 3 year olds generally do not know how to read yet. (Yeah, I don't need comments about how your son/daughter is a genius and taught themselves how to read and play the piano and cook seven course meals at 18 months…. Thanks) Some of this software is great, the kids have fun, learn a bit about numbers (math), letters (reading), even science or socialization. However, often these games have some major blunders.

My son had a game based on the popular "Dragon Tales" PBS cartoon. He really enjoyed it, except that he continually uninstalled it. Huh? You ask? You see the game required the CD to be loaded in order to play the game, when the disk was inserted the auto-start on the disk presented a splash screen. On this screen were three options--Play the game, Uninstall the game and Quit the splash screen. In the splash screen design layout the Quit button was off to the lower left corner out of the way. This is a good thing. However the Play button was directly above the Uninstall button. None of these buttons included any icons, they were simply word prompts. Now here is a game targeted specifically to the non-reader, and to start the game you need to be able to read…. Dumb really, dumb. My son uninstalled that game many, many times. (Which of course also lost his saved games, and the various user settings, including parental controls like number of printouts the child could do per day etc.)  And, because the security on our home machine was set so that he could not install anything, once he uninstalled the game (why you can uninstall when you can't install I don't know, I think it was specific to this game) he could not reinstall it, even if he knew how…. Small thing? Yes in some ways, but the pattern is repeated over and over. On pre-reader kids games there is often a key part that requires reading. Another point about kids games, that goes beyond the UI, but is part of the user experience. How many software pirates out there target games for three year olds? Why then do all these games require the kids to be able to load the original CD? I should be able to install the game for my child, put the original CD in a safe place, and the child should be able to play the game, from the hard drive, without having to insert the disk. Kids, particularly young ones destroy CDs, and I've had to repurchase several favorite titles, and some titles are simply unavailable. Sorry kid your favorite game is ruined and Daddy can't replace it…. There's a great user experience. Again, poor design, too little thought into the end user of the software.

Hey Andy! (you say) I write business applications, not kids games, what can I learn from this…. Again I say: know your user. This is not about kids games, it's about the user--those people who will actually have to sit down and use the software we write. Note, I don’t say "get value from the software we write" no, those are often other people….

Another case: I wrote a POS system for an industrial company. The primary users were men sitting in a little shack next to a truck scale that talked to big-rig drivers all day. These were not the most tech-savvy users, and their equipment was not the most up-to-date, i.e. 14 inch monitors, dirt and dust everywhere, etc. Now most of the system requirements were gathered by talking to the people who were going to get value from the software. These same people were paying for the software, namely managers, financial people, etc.--business people who sat in front of 17-19 inch monitors in offices all day. Working with them we arrived at a screen design that filled a 1024x786 resolution display with lots of important information, and at least 16 buttons. Keyboard navigation and typing were not discussed much, and certainly were not primary in scope…. A prototype of this design was built and someone, ok me, had the idea to actually show it to the end users. Surprisingly this was met with resistance from the client. "We don't want to distract them from their jobs/They can't take time off the line to attend meetings/We know what they need" Luckily we were able to convince the client that end-user review was an important step in the design process. The result? Well, the final design was targeted for a 640x480 display and all important functions could be done without using a mouse. (In that dusty environment mouse balls quickly gummed up, the users all had a big issue with using the mouse. Keyboards on the other hand are much more durable and can be covered from dust by plastic protectors.) All drop-downs were type-ahead lookups, and a very natural and speedy tab-flow was developed. The final screen had only two buttons, seldom used-but required features were provided via keyboard-shortcuted drop-down menus, and often separate screens. Additionally the screen could be customized per user, via a menu drop-down, for color, size and some strategic control placement. What, you ask, such a tech-savvy feature for such Neanderthal users? No, these users were blue-collar, and not technical, sure. But they also were not stupid. With a simple interface and plain language in the UI, they easily grasped the concept of a UI that could be customized per user. What would have been a disastrous, and ultimately unusable UI design was turned into an elegant and appreciated UI design--simply by knowing what the end user wanted. Imagine that.

Posted on Tuesday, February 3, 2004 8:37 AM | Back to top


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