“Hey, what do you think about this user interface?”

Most of the time when we train people about user experience, we tell them how to do it. We talk about best practices, do’s and don’t’s, design guidelines, patterns, etc. This obviously assumes that the people learning about those topics apply their freshly acquired knowledge when building user interfaces themselves. Yet, you can look at user experience design from another angle. What if you’re not the person who designs or builds a front-end, but you’re in a position where you need to assess the user experience of a UI? Maybe you’re a product manager, maybe you’re the VP of product marketing and you’re in one of those design review meetings where new concepts, prototypes or applications are presented and you need to talk intelligently about what you like or don’t like about what you see. While everybody has a gut reaction towards usability and appeal, it can be hard to give well-founded and constructive feedback.

Logo of Software Architect 2011 conference

Next month, I’ll give a talk at Software Architect 2011 in London, focusing on this topic. I’ll present a reference list of items that can help inform your assessment of a user interface. This list includes:

  • Usability Checklists (ISO 9241-110, Nielsen’s 10 Heuristics, Shneiderman’s 8 Golden Rules)
  • Screen Clutter (from the perspective of aesthetics and human factors)
  • Text Treatment (text sizes, text orientation)
  • Colors & Contrasts (incl. color perception deficiencies,  tools to simulate color blindness, tools to analyze contrasts)
  • Alignments (in menus, in forms, in grids)
  • Orientation (in an application, on a dialog)
  • Icon Quality (icon attributes driving ease of understanding)
  • Chart Types (what types are easier to understand than others)
  • Saliency Modeling (as an alternative to eye-tracking)
  • Empirical Evidence (usability testing)

If you look at this list it’s apparent that the last bullet (empirical evidence) is the strongest one as it’s based on actual experiences of actual target users. The problem is that if you’re confronted with a user interface and you need to provide your own take on it right in that situation, you don’t have the time to first run a usability test before you answer – although this would make a lot of sense. In the lack of this option, the other items from the list above will provide good enough guidance on checking different design aspects that all influence the user experience.

Bottom-line is: the more informed you can talk about a user interface, the more impact you have on its development.

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