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21 June 2011

User interfaces, style and art

By Andrew Clifford

A lot of user interface styling has nothing to do with art.

I am a words person, not a picture person. I do not understand the artistic aspects of design. I simply don't see what other people see.

For me, then, it has been very interesting to see the styling changes that my colleagues have been making to our MA2 software. As I have tried to make sense of these changes, I think I am beginning to understand a little bit about style.

To show you what I mean, here are some of the changes that we have made:

  • We have adopted a bolder, stronger colour scheme, with more contrast, and a lot less corporate light blue.
  • We have increased the font size, and centred the content on the page.
  • We have removed a list of links on the left of the page. We have put more frequently used links at the top of the page, and less frequently used links on a pull-down panel which is only visible when the user selects it.
  • Similarly, we have taken a lot of details off the page, such as data references, author details and permission information, and put these on the pull-down panel.
  • We have moved our logo from the top-left of the page and put it at the bottom.
  • We have added colour to buttons on forms. We have one colour for the button that does something, one colour for the cancel button, and a different colour for buttons that navigate between pages.
  • We have made the pages for different types of data (such as people, licenses, and questions) look as similar as possible, using the same layout and the same styling.
  • We have made the style of all tabular data the same, and added the same effects for sorting, paging and filtering.

Although these are mostly visual changes, they have hugely improved the system. Even though I completely understood the system before the changes and I think I do not see visual aspects of design like other people, I found the system easier to use after these changes.

A lot of the changes have been to focus the pages on the main task. We need to think what the user has come to that page to do, and use layout and style to make that obvious and uncluttered in front of them. Other information and other options should be de-emphasised or a click or two away. A words person like me can understand this.

Most of the other changes are about consistency. By being consistent in how pages are laid out and what things look like, we are creating a visual terminology for the user. When they come to a new page, they already know how to use it.

I am sure these design insights are obvious to professional designers. But part of the reason that people like me find it hard to understand visual design is that even the more tangible aspects of design are hidden behind artistic language of style, colour and mood. If we want to improve usability, we have to discuss it in tangible terms that even the least artistic of us can grasp.

Next: The creative side of IT


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