Rory Primrose

Learn from my mistakes, you don't have time to make them yourself

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How important is UI design for software?

I have been thinking about this question ever since I started my first ‘real’ job in the industry when I was half way through university. Each time I think about UI design and what it means to software, I come to the same conclusion.

Market acceptance and widespread use of software is now becoming proportionate to the quality of the UI design of that software.

Traditionally, UI design wasn’t seen as important as functionality, regardless of what the user liked to see. UI design was seen as an unnecessary project expense. There didn’t seem to be a link made between UI design and usability. I believe that design and usability go hand in hand and usability will always impact on the functionality of software or at least the users willingness and ability to use the functionality provided. Unfortunately, this still seems to be the case in many software projects today.

Robert Scoble recently had an interview with Jenny Lam, a designer on the Microsoft User Experience team. It was very interesting to hear about the progress Microsoft and the rest of the industry has made with regard to UI design. As it should, UI design is now starting to become more important in the overall software design process. Although I am a developer, my current role is in a UI design team and I also see many of the struggles in trying to get UI design recognised as important to a product.

Bobinho made some very interesting comments in a response to the Channel 9 video. I really agree with him when he says:

But Windows developers, on the whole have no sense of style. No taste. No feel for design. And their products suffer greatly as a result.

Developers tend to be people who can appreciate great looking UI, but can’t make it themselves. Software projects worked on by small companies and individuals with limited or no budgets are the common victims of bad UI design. This is because they don’t have the skills to create good looking UI and can’t afford to have skillful people employed to do the work. Development with larger budgets often give a little bit to UI design, but I think there is still not enough focus on it in larger projects.

In my previous jobs, I have seen many projects that have not had any professional UI design work done. Several times I have mentioned to management that if they want their great product to be successful, they need to make it look good as well. Unfortunately this advice has always fallen on deaf ears. Of course this means that the UI design is done by developers with the result being what Bobinho calls ‘no sense of style’. My colleagues in the UI design team have often taken a stab at developers because of poor designs that they come up with. Even though I am a developer, I whole-heartedly agree with them.

Many times I have heard about projects that have been rejected by a management or client review because it didn’t look good, even though the ‘naked’ product itself was fantastic. I have also often heard of poor solutions getting approved because the UI looked great. This is partly about first impressions, but also about whether the people you are selling the project to (the managers) or the people buying the product (customers keeping you employed) are able to see through a bad looking product and can appreciate the product for what it does.

This comes down to demographics. Who are you trying to please when you are trying to sell your project or final product? If they want to see a good UI as well as have a good product, then use some design talent in your project. How successful would the Xbox be if the dashboard was an ancient text based console style design?

Have a read of some interesting quotes regarding design that Joe Stagner posted a while back.

Good UI design isn’t just important to software, it is critical. Users are starting to expect more from software. This is probably because of progress made in the gaming industry, but also the now common use of advanced CG in movies.

I love good looking software and I think companies are starting to realise the importance of having good UI design along with a great product under the covers. I hope an increase in the use of smart/rich clients compared to web interfaces and the use of the coming Windows Presentation Foundation will propel companies towards putting more effort into UI design.

I am very much looking forward to a future of great looking software. I know it is going to be a bumpy ride, but sweet looking software is just too good to ignore.

Written on February 9, 2006