At work we are currently re-doing the architecture of our user interface (UI) layer. We sat down to discuss what our objectives should be in doing this initiative, and I found the objectives so compelling that I think it could apply to any user interface. Below are the major objectives in constructing a UI: consistency, usability, navigation, visual appeal, interoperability, performance, and accessibility.
I should first say that this list and its corresponding description are not intended to be exhaustive. I realize that there are many layers of complexity in this endeavor. Also, you’ll see how inter-dependent they are on one another. If you do one poorly it shows up in the others.
Two Levels of Architecture
Before I get into each of these points I want to talk about the two levels of architecture that are involved in the UI layer. The first is the information architecture (IA) of UI. Here is a great definition for IA.
“Information architecture is the design of the structure and navigation of an interactive product: software, a web-based application or a web site. An effective information architecture assessment bridges the gap between research and analysis and the visual design of your interactive product…The intent of an information architecture assessment and strategy is to properly define effective, goal-oriented interaction between your users and your application or web site.”
The second layer is the technical architecture. Technical architecture is basically how we choose to implement our information architecture programmatically. This would be decisions such as: what is our stylesheet architecture? How much abstraction do we want in our implementation? In summary, it would be how we design our presentation, structure, and behavior layers (what Jeffrey Zeldman called the “Trinity of Web Design”).
If I were to say that there was a foundation to others it would be consistency. Without consistency such things as usability, navigation, etc. couldn’t exist. Consistency applies to every aspect of the user interface. Some things to keep in mind when thinking about this:
- Does the layout of our application stay the same with minimal aberrations?
- Is the navigation clear and consistent, or is every click a gamble?
- Do even small details such as the link color/behavior stay the same throughout?
Usability is the endeavor that is often skipped during development due to resources, which is a shame, because many errors could be discovered earlier. Usability brings the application to the people that will actually use it. How many requirements meetings have you been in that revolve around your end users? Most of the time, whether intentional or not, we tend to project our personal preferences onto this mythical “iUser” that doesn’t exist. If your application is not usable then guess what? No one’s going to use it.
- Have you brought in a sample of your demographic to test the application?
- Does your application adhere to common “best practices”?
- Have you read Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think?
Navigation is to an application as table of contents are to a book. At a glance I should be able to know where I’m at, where I’ve been, and where I’m going. In other words, navigation should answer the question: Where Am I? I see this as being the aspect that we tend to have the tendency of projecting our preferences onto a design. Navigation should also encompass the taxonomy you have for your site so I know the content of your site.
- What are sites that you find easy/hard to navigate, and do you consider that when designing?
- Does your navigation truly serve the purpose of navigation?
- Is your navigation hidden, or is it prominent, clear, and usable?
The fact that we want to design something that is in fact visually appealing is not a bad desire to have. The only problem is when we design interfaces for visual appeal at the expense of the others on this list. We also need to separate the thought that visual appeal corresponds to filling the entire page. One of aspect of “Web 2.0 style” (yep, I said it) is a proper use of white space. Your design shouldn’t look like you applied some “Make My Logo Bigger Cream”.
- Have you ensured that your desire for visual appeal hasn’t come at the expense of usability, accessibility, etc.?
- Does your site look good without all the fluff? In a syndication world we need to make sure that our content stays the primary focus.
- Does your site contain stock photos? If so, abandon quickly.
Web standards have, at their core, a focus on increasing interoperability. Wouldn’t it be nice that if we followed a standard that regardless of browser our design would look the same, and regardless of device our content will be delivered? Sometimes it is appropriate to design for a specific demographic, but most of need to consider at least the major players in the browser/OS market. I should never again see a “this page is best viewed in…” message again.
- Does my application perform well in various environments including the presentation and behavior?
- Are you using hacks to target certain browsers? Well, then stop it.
- Is my content tied to my interface, or does my interface allow syndication?
Remember the good olé’ days of dial-up? Ya, I’d rather not remember that either. We live in a broadband world now, but we still have to be conscientious that our application doesn’t make us cook dinner while we wait for it to load. Standards-based design helps in this regard. With cleaner, semantic markup and abstracting the presentation from the structure we reduce the performance concern?
- Does your markup look beautiful?
- Does your content perform well in a non-desktop environment (i.e. mobile)?
- Are you using tools like YSlow to find performance bottlenecks?
Accessibility usually all had to be pushed from a social responsibility perspective (which many managers outside of the government could care less about) until we could start masking it under the guise that Google’s spider was the #1 blind web user. The truth is that accessibility is important, and even CSS 2.1 added markup to help with screen readers. Remember that you don’t want to alienate anyone from viewing your content. And yes, it’s true that accessibility does help your SEO if you need another reason to sell it.
- Have you considered the accessibility standards such as Section 508 and/or the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI)?
- Have you tried to browse your site with a screen reader?
- Do you lock in the font sizes, or do you allow and even encourage the user to increase/decrease the font?
Developing user interfaces is a complex process that deserves a lot of foresight and ability to adapt to your users, industry trends, and changing technologies. If you keep these considerations in mind you will be well on your way to creating an application that is usable, flexible, scalable, and so much more!