Thursday, October 05, 2006

Building a good user interface... why don't more companies do it?

We can all agree on something, can't we? User interfaces are important.

Both Google and Apple have dominated their respective markets for search and mobile music largely because of the innovation in their user interfaces (note that innovation in UIs usually corresponds with simplicity).

And products with poor interfaces endure repeated tongue-lashings from product reviewers--here is David Pogue on the Motorola Q phone: "Unfortunately, this software's designers must believe that you bill by the hour; getting anything done on this phone requires more steps than the Empire State Building." And here is Jerry Garrett of the New York Times on BMW's iDrive: "It does have some useful features, if you can twist, click and beat on it accurately enough to navigate its labyrinth of menus — while driving 80 m.p.h."--never mind the eternal irritation of those unfortunate enough to have to use the product.

So, the only remaining question is: why aren't there more good ones?

I've been thinking about that question since reading Matt Barthelemy's terrific article on user interface design in the most recent PDMA Visions magazine.

I can give you a personal perspective. I spent ten years developing technology products. I can tell you that I knew so deeply the beauty and intricacy of the inner product (e.g., a LAN network management product, wireless fraud detection system, telecom mediation platform) that its external interface was almost irrelevant. (It was only when I went into marketing--and got a lot dumber about the innards of my products--did I come to understand that a poor user interface is a serious, possibly fatal, flaw.)

I worked with some human-factors professionals on the network management product. But neither I nor the other developers paid their recommendations much heed. If it took a long time to figure out how to use the product, so be it. It was a complex product. Look at all it did!

Now as dumb as that approach was when applied to the small, niche products I was working with, imagine if the same logic were applied to consumer products. Appreciate the inner beauty... if you're not smart enough to figure out how to use this, maybe you don't deserve this product.

Well, you'd probably wind up with something like iDrive.

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