User-Friendly Design Is Disappearing

When I first started learning about designing user-friendly interfaces, one mantra that was consistently hammered into our brain was that hidden options were a sign of bad design. If the user had to search for where to click to proceed to the next step, you were a bad designer. The OK or Cancel buttons needed to be right there. Check boxes and other possible options needed to be clearly visible and labeled. The user must look at the screen and know at a glance where to click; that was a user-friendly design.

Today, fueled in part by small screens, options are now hidden. You look at the screen and you have absolutely no idea what to do or where to click. Instead, you need to move your mouse around to reveal the hidden options, whether it be a menu option or the three little dots that tell you there are more options. While it makes for a cleaner design, it also increases the amount of stress / distress that a user not familiar with the screen feels. A user-friendly design means that the user does not need to refer to the User Guide (or search the Internet) to find his or her way around. Quick, tell me which combination of keys you need to press on the Apple Mac to do a screen print? Is it the fn, the control, the option or the command button in combination with the shift and 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 buttons?

I am not going to launch into a comparison argument pitting Windows against Mac commands, but I do remember the utter frustration I felt when I first decided to try out the Mac. Where on Windows, the CTRL button ruled them all, on the Mac, you needed to memorize and select between the aforementioned fn, control, option and command buttons. Other things that were so simple on Windows made me want to throw my Mac across the room. Of course, the Mac has its good points, too and, today, I am used to its idiosyncracies, keep a handy command list beside me, and am a happy user of the Mac. I use Windows at work and Mac at home, so I am now equally proficient on both. Which one I prefer? The Mac, hands down, for the tight integration between all the apps. Whereas Windows might be more powerful and flexible, and gives you almost limitless ways to mix and atch software together, that very flexibility is what makes it sometimes complex to use with different incompatible software. Apple gives you only one way to do things and that’s good enough for 90% of the time, and they work seamlessly together.

What started me thinking about user-friendly design is a May 8, 2019 article I just read on fastcompany written by Don Norman, a former Apple VP, and author of industry bible Design of Everyday Things: “I Wrote the Book on User-Friendly Design. What I See Today Horrifies Me”. In it, he makes the argument that design is increasingly geared toward the young, and the elderly are being left behind: fonts are too small to read, buttons are too small to easily click, products look ugly, are impractical and labeled “elderly,” etc. He argues that by designing for the elderly, we will also serve the young with innovative, practical and useful products.

Now I agree with him, but there will always be an “elderly” stigma in society, and that does not matter which country, race or culture we talk about. Though I might be considered old by a twenty-something, I do not consider myself so old that I need a walking stick. Not yet, 🙂 So even if we design a walking stick that is cool and innovative and practical that might be useful when I am shopping for groceries, etc. (as Don mentioned in his article), I would not want to use that walking stick simply because I see other older people use it.

Young people do not want to use the same products their parents or grandpas use, period. It does not matter how cool that product is, they will not want that association. These products become a badge that labels you as old. It’s like Facebook: as soon as their parents started using it, young people fled to other social sites.

Business answers to only one call: profits. Even though I agree with Don that more products need to be designed for the elderly in mind and these products will become useful for the non-elderly also, that argument will not convince companies and their product designers to do so. Only by becoming an economic force clamoring for more practical products geared for the elderly will companies and their product designers be moved to do so.

Products (including software products) need to be designed for the elderly in mind because they are becoming an economic force. The elderly will increasingly support products that help them. Elderly-friendly interfaces(EI) with bigger fonts, buttons that are more easily clickable, options that are visible and not hidden and have to be hunted for, are clearly labeled… a return to what used to be taught as good UI design will dramatically decrease the stress and distress faced by many.

Game design for children has influenced UI design a lot. Games designed for the little kids are mistake-proof: they cannot click on a wrong button, and even if there are no clearly labeled instructions (these 4 and 5-year old kids can’t read yet anyway), the kids instinctively know what to do while their parents cluelessly hunt for instructions. Now, you might think I’m contradicting myself, but this game design can in fact be good UI design. If it’s simple enough for a kid who cannot yet read to use, then it’s good enough for the rest of us.

Good desgn is intuitive to use and mistake-proof. I don’t mean that you need to always lead the user by the nose from one option to the next. While good for a novice, it’s frustrating for an experienced user. Let’s take a simple example: When I tab from the User ID field, where shoud the cursor land next? You’d think it will be in the Password field, right? And yet, how many times have you landed instead on the “I don’t know my user ID” field. Likewise, when you tab from the Password field, where should the cursor land next? You’d think it will be on the Log in button, right? And yet, how many times have you landed instead on the “Lost your password?” field and pressed Enter and tore your hair out of frustration?

Hidden options that reveal themselves only when you hover the mouse over an item is bad design. You look at the screen and you wonder, What do I do now? You can’t see the options. Move your mouse, says your friend. First, you can’t hover when using your finger on a tablet. Second, it’s frustrating having to constantly hunt for the option you are looking for. It becomes a tiring mental game to find the menu options, then to read them and find what you are looking for.

Menu options that are specific to a particular item can be good design, but are too often confusing and frustrating to use. Instead of getting used to one menu bar and knowing where all the options are on that menu bar (with the ones not available greyed out), we get so many different menu bars and have to constantly hunt for what we are looking for. Again, it’s a tiring mental game.

Hierarchical menu choices are a bad design. While hierarchical listing is great when categorizing things, it’s a bad UI design choice. The user wants to find the most commonly used options up front and not have to dig three or more levels down the hierarchy to find them. Take the Olympus cameras, for example. For years, whoever was in charge of UI design persisted in keeping their menus hierarchical in nature and, though complete and each item was in its correct position in the hierarchy, it was maddening for users to use. Since, they have listened to users and made better UI design choices.

Taps are a good example of good and bad design. There are taps that are practical and there are taps that defy their raison d’être. A kitchen tap needs to be tall to allow you to easily put a big pot underneath and fill it with water. A bathroom sink tap needs to be far enough from the edge so you can easily wash your hands underneath the water flow. But how many times have we seen sink taps that are so small and close to the edge so that you keep hitting the edge with your hands as you try to wash them? It defeats their very purpose of existence because while you wash your hands, you dirty them at the same time by touching the sink edge. Or a tap that dumps the water out as though it was Niagara Falls, with dirty water from the bottom of the sink splashing back up onto your hands. How any tap designer worth its salt can design and market such taps boggle my mind.

Kitchen design needs to be smarter. Condos are getting smaller and smaller and space is at a premium, so kitchen space is getting smaller and smaller in condos. That’s understandable for a small condo, but not for a multi million-dollar house. Counter space is vital for food preparation, even basic ones such as preparing breakfast. For those who cook, counter space beside the fridge, beside the sink and beside the stove/oven are three places where you simply cannot skimp on. Take the microwave : It should never be above the stove because that’s an accident waiting to happen. When you take boiling hot stuff out from above your head and do not have a safe counter space to quickly put it on, it is easy to spill it on yourself. Nor should the microwave be situated below the counter level because you will have to squat and getting up with a hot stuff, it is again easy to spill it all over the floor. A microwave should be on the counter with enough space in front of it so that you can easily and safely transfer food to and from the microwave. A fridge should never be right beside the stove: The heat from the stove will affect the fridge which itself needs enough space around it to cool its coils. There needs to be enoough counter space to the right and left of the stove to place uncooked and cooked items, and not mix the two. The dishwasher needs to be close to the sink so you can transfer dirty dishes from the sink to the dishwasher wothout dripping dirty water all over the floor. Kitchen design needs to be practical, minimizing the amount of walking from one station to the other. It also needs to be safe, e.g., allowing one person to be at the sink while another is cooking without bumping into each other. You need to be able to get to the fridge without bumping into each other. Small thinigs like that make a kitchen a comfortable place to work and eat in.

There are so many other design dos and don’ts, and I may get into them more in another post.