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Why User Interface Matters

How you and I interact with technology all comes down to the user interface. Whether it's the knobs on a car radio to a website interface and even how the icons on a mobile phone are arranged, the usability, approachability and our ability to be productive all comes down to the thought and care that went in to the design of the that user interface.

Every choice you make with your communications in your website, blog, email, presentations, and even printed materials, all comes down to how approachable you make it. If design, layout and user interface didn't matter, I often joke that we'd all be reading our newspapers and magazines on white paper with 12 point Geneva font and no columns, graphics or photos. 

When I went to work for a manufacturer's rep group in 1981 at the "dawn of the personal computer age," as many marketers so aptly put it just a few years later, computers were operated with typed in commands and I remember being incredibly frustrated with the need to memorize obscure command sets just to get some work done. 

Then the upstart computer company we sold for, Apple Computer, introduced a $9,995 business computer called the Lisa in 1983 (which, by the way, would cost >$21,000 in today's dollars). Told by our systems engineer (Doug) to, "No matter what Borsch, do NOT touch it since I've got it set up perfectly," I couldn't resist and snuck in to the training room after everyone else had gone home.

Doug had given me a five minute walk-through of how Lisa operated and I was confident I could put things back and not break it. I moved this thingy called a "mouse" and did what he'd done: double-clicked to open the word processor LisaWrite and proceeded to type a short paragraph which I then printed by going to "File > Print" and it printed. I then "Saved" the document in to a "Folder" on the "Desktop" and later "Trashed" it and it all worked!

Light bulbs burst forth over my head, glowing brightly, and I remember sitting there in the darkened training room thinking, "Oh my God. This thing Doug called a "user interface" is going to change how we all use computers" and boy did it ever as well as setting me on multi-decade path to understand world-class user interface design and leading thoughts on the matter. 

You know the rest of the story: Macintosh was introduced in 1984; Windows 1.0 in 1985; and the graphical user interface (GUI) with its icon-driven interface became the baseline from which most user interface designs sprung forth during the last nearly thirty years, and what was termed the "File > Edit" paradigm of menus prevailed.


Apple severely restricted application developers by issuing something called the "Macintosh User Interface Guidelines" when it was launched in 1984. Many perceived it as unnecessarily constricting, but Apple's goal was to get the user interface out of the way by making it a standard framework by which to navigate.

Think of it like driving your car. Do you have to stop and think about putting your foot on the brake when a ball rolls out in to the street? Once you've been acclimated to a new car, for example, within a couple of weeks or so it becomes second nature to reach for the radio controls, turn on the lights on turn signal, and know pretty much where everything is located. THAT was Apple's goal with the GUI and that thought leadership has stuck. 

Today the GUI has begun rapidly migrating to touch-based systems like the iPhone, Palm Pre and touch computer displays, all in attempt to take the user interface toward natural systems and ways we interact with nature.

But unfortunately bad user interface design is still all too common, not just with computer applications, but also with website designs and many of the objects we use every day. With the onrush and acceleration of cloud computing applications, new devices, more and more websites and "hybrid" applications that do stuff on both your desktop and connected to the cloud (e.g., iTunes; Adobe AIR apps), the sheer volume of user interfaces we each have to grasp and use has already become overwhelming.

In so many cases, a little thought and planning can eliminate many of the user interface mistakes we make due to our not thinking about how the user will interact with our district or school websites, manage to figure out what's important in all the paper sent home with their student; or know where everything can be found online...just because you do.

I've often pointed out to administrators or district technologists mistakes or failings in the way information and data is delivered online in the nicest, most helpful way I possibly can. NEVER are my remarks or criticisms intended to do anything but be helpful, and almost always they're taken as such. 

Unfortunately when one spends their day within a system -- whether it's a district office building or a classroom -- it's too easy to expect that what is taken as obvious by you will be so by a parent or other person outside of that system and the number of these sorts of mistakes seem to be proliferating. 

As such, I'd like to leave you with one thought about user interface design: always consider the person who will be consuming what you're publishing online or in print; the directories you're delivering; the emails you send out or the signs directing parents around the building at curriculum night; and make certain that if it's not a paradigm we're already used to (e.g., layout of a book with table of contents, chapters, etc.) then it's likely some thought needs to be given to its user interface.


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Accelerating Change are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.