Why Change User Interfaces

Feb
6
2007

When we do a website makeover are we just plastering over all the old mistakes in the information architecture and usability of the site or are we demolishing it and starting from scratch. If your clients are like mine the latter only partly occurs, it’s usually not down to budget either.

You know the score, people want to retain all of the familiar elements and functionality. Regardless of what the statistics on usage are and often contrary to whether the items are providing a good service for their web site. As expected people have a major case of emotional attachment to their web site. And granted this is valid, it’s “their” site; they need to be emotional about it. I would be worried if they where not.

Are we plastering over the cracks for a makeover just  because it’s there?

So what starts off as a makeover with a demolition, ends up as a renovation of the site. This is often on top of the usual non-standards compliant code or aging CMS systems. This will we all know, will come back to the client later, but that’s seen as the next budget cycle’s problem.

So what key elements should we really keep, what should be thrown away. If the site is working well for the client, why are we throwing it away in the first place? Why the makeover?

Web Design Conventions

In deciding what to keep or throw, we need to look at why it is there in the first place.

And there is one basic premise that I tend to find some designers overlooking, whether it is from being to close to the project or lack of experience.

Now, like it or not, we have conventions within web design. With over ten years behind us, the average visitor to a web site is expecting most of the functionality and layout of the navigation of a web site to look in concept at least like the sites they have visited before. Jakob Nielsen (Designing Web Usability : The Practice of Simplicity) and Steve Krug (Don’t Make Me Think) have discussed this at length in their respective books, although both dated, they go over the basics. There are conventions, you should be aware of them.

This also extends to desktop software. For over 25 years of the personal computer (IBM or MAC) we have had the menu interface for software. The user expects an application to have some type of menu system. It’s not the content of the menu system or the structure; it’s the base concept of the menu as a list of items that is important. With the operating system we expect that we have to select a button (icon) to start a process (application), this process is now universal.

“But why bother with all this”, you cry, “isn’t this stifling creativity by having all these rules.” I will remind people the print industry has similar rules, just they apply mainly to the print medium and they are so ingrained you don’t notice them. I’m not going to talk about grids, okay.

So why have the conventions? By having this degree of stabilization conferred by the conventions, we can devote our mind’s resources to doing the job at hand and not wasting time on working out how to use the software, or how to muddle through the new web site interface.

But despite this for some reason we have this attitude that we have to change the interfaces over and over again. And yes we are all guilty of this, especially in the web industry.

Imagine that a simple interface on a power drill was changed as much as we did with web sites or software. Yes sure you can add more buttons and functions to a power drill (like you can a web site or software). But what if we removed the drill button or took away the drill chuck. You would have to either retrain in how to use the new drill (by reading the instructions) or just muddle through it all, working it out as you go. For the most part we tend to do the latter (male or female). I have observed, we love to muddle our way through a problem, as long as we have progress we are happy. We are all grand muddlers.

Change for the Dollars Sake

So why do we have to waste all this time and energy on relearning how to use a web site or desktop software over and over again. Yes change is good, yes change allows for a state of more rapid innervations. But it’s a time waster too.

But for the general day-to-day tasks do we really need a better mousetrap? Do we need to change things just because the software company / web designer wants to put a different interface on things. Are we as designers making some of these changes just for the draw of the almighty dollar or is it something more?

Yes desktop software and the web are young and hence are still in a state of flux. However consider that these industries are amongst the most rapid development and evolutionary industries in all history.

Are we at the point where we should be stabilising user interfaces? Or should we continue to let the marketing and creative forces take sway, just because they can? Think of it like this; are the interface changes around you being driven by the need for improvement of just to sell the product with more glitz and more glamour (and more wow)?

Are we plastering over the cracks for a makeover just because it’s there?

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