User Interface Design isn’t for everyone

Author: Dave Cassel  |  Category: Entrepreneurism

I’ve always known that the visual aspect of software is important, but most of my software development career has been building behind-the-scenes components that no user ever saw. I knew good user interface design was important, I just didn’t know how to design one.

Not knowing anything about web development when I started, I began by downloading some source code from PHP and MySQL Web Development and mucking with it until it did the basics of what I wanted. Of course, that code was intended to demonstrate how to control users logging in — not how to make a pretty web site.

It was ugly.

Some early feedback from family and friends led me to replace that user interface. It took some real work (largely because the book’s chapter was built to demonstrate one point, not to build a system around), but I got it done.

It was a little less ugly.

Eventually, I recruited help from people who are much better at UI design than I am. I also read a good book on the topic, which helped me some. But right up to the time when I pulled the plug on the project, there were pages that just looked bad.

Okay, so what, right? The site worked, it did good stuff. Well, I know how I react to sites and I know that many others react similarly. I don’t mind a site that’s plain. But a site that’s hard to use is a huge turn off. So is a site that looks like it was just slapped together. I assume that a site that looks bad won’t work either. That thought kept me from advertising — I didn’t want anybody to see how bad it looked, for fear of blowing the first impression.

I did get as far as getting some potential users to try out the site. Their feedback gave me great information, including confirmation that the interface just wasn’t ready for prime time.

Lesson learned: if you’re not good at designing user interfaces (and most developers aren’t — it’s a different skill), team up with someone who is. When I try my next startup, I’ll be recruiting a designer as one of the first members on the team.

Bonus wisdom: if you’re still in school, try to take a class on user interface design. Even if (like me) you lack the artistic side to make an interface pretty, at least you’ll know more usability.

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4 Responses to “User Interface Design isn’t for everyone”

  1. Jason C Says:

    …so…as I sit here in a Human-Computer Interaction class…

    It’s funny how much people are willing to forgive when a user-interface is easy to use, and gets out of the way. I realize that many developers are not interested in user-interface design because it’s “not interesting,” but it is a very difficult problem. There is a ton of science and psychology behind a good UI design, and this particular field needs many more talented people.

    Also, I like how you said, “Even if (like me) you lack the artistic side to make an interface pretty, at least you’ll know more usability.” Interestingly enough, pretty is not necessarily equal to usability. I realize this may be obvious, but it’s a distinction I always like to point out because many people will spend a lot of time on making an interface pretty, but this does not translate to an easier-to-use software.

  2. dcassel Says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head. Two different aspects to UI design: usability and attractiveness. The usability side is something I feel like I can understand and get better at (I’m not there yet). The attractiveness part, well, I’ve never been good with colors and stuff.

  3. KevinWC Says:

    In my experience, there are a great many graphic artists/web designers to whom pretty usable is not at all obvious. I think it’s gotten better over the last few years, but you still see websites that look really cool and are a pain in the a$$ to navigate.

    Simple, clean, and elegant are the things I look for. I’m a content guy by profession, so I want to see the UI disappear as soon as I start moving around a site.

    Lots more to be said on this topic, obviously, but it’s hard ot go wrong keeping it simple, IMO.

  4. Boots Cassel Says:

    Usability is an interesting part of computer science these days. I know people who do serious research in the area and have published on the subject. There are criteria and even ways to measure usability characteristics. Pretty is nice, but that is a separate thing all together. You want to be sure that the site does what it is supposed to do and that an ordinary person can find the features and services you have worked so hard to build.

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