Don’t Be a User Interface Hoarder

design | 2-19-2011

For some reason, I keep watching episodes of a television show called "Hoarders." If you haven't seen it, it's about people who collect stuff. Collecting stuff is one thing, but these people have no organizational system for the items that they collect. They literally have piles of so much useless junk that their houses become essentially unlivable. Many of them don't even have a single walkway to navigate through their homes. They could lead better lives, but they are unwilling to let go of their material possessions.

I think that is exactly what happens in technology when a good user interface goes bad. I know that there are user interfaces that are legitimately bad to start with, but that's beyond the point of this discussion.

As designers and developers, we make interfaces that provide wonderful user experiences. After which our clients and sometimes even end-users will come back with items that simply have to be added to the interface.

Sometimes the additions really are necessary and sometimes they aren't. For the sake of discussion let's say that the additions actually are necessary.

What happens when you have an interface that doubles or triples in visual complexity? Practically speaking, it will make the user lose focus. It will make them unsure of what they are supposed to do and how they are supposed to do it. Simple tasks will take them longer. In the worst case, they will give up on your interface and move on to something else.

The people creating the software or making the decisions about the software may feel like everything they are adding is needed. However, in the end, you have to let some things go. Otherwise you are just another user interface hoarder.

Here are some valuable questions to ask if you're planning to add something to an existing interface:

Is this really needed?

Some additions are important and others are not. Something that is flashy or "cool" may not necessarily be something that will make life easier or better for your user.

Will this improve the user experience?

In many cases, the client is going to want to get as much information about the user as possible. Information is valuable. The more we know about our users, the more we can improve their experience in the long run. The problem comes when asking questions to the user gets in the way of their current experience. If you can, find ways to get to know the user without making them fill our lengthy forms. Nobody likes filling out forms. Forms are even worse on mobile devices without an external keyboard. If you want your user to submit a form, a basic rule is to make it short.

Does everything need to be shown at once?

If you determine that everything you're adding is important, perhaps you can make the interface a little easier by not showing the user everything at once. Forms are often easier to complete in short steps where the user can focus on one question at a time. This also makes it easier for the user to react to form validation, because the problematic fields will be fresh in their minds.

Emphasize the things that are of the highest import

I'm not here to give a lesson on graphic design, but if something is important, like a call to action, it should stand out. The user needs to be drawn to it. Once you start emphasizing what is extremely important, you may find that some of the less important things can be cut.

Nobody is going to leave you interface or website because it is too simple. However, if your interface is too hard too use, it will probably only take a few short seconds for your users to leave and never return. If you want to give your users a rewarding experience with your application, you just may have to clean your house.



About the Author

Tyson Cadenhead is a Senior JavaScript Developer at Aloompa. He lives in the greater Nashville area. His specialty is writing large, scalable JavaScript applications on the client and server side. His passions are for good design, usability, and clean, reusable code.

Tags: User Interface

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