Just Don’t Make It Annoying

I find that whenever I’m designing a user interface, the one safe rule to follow is simply this: just don’t make it annoying. This might sound banal, but there are often cases where blindly following best practices and design theory slowly pulls you off the right track, so that you end up designing something for the sake of a good design – whatever that is – rather than for actual use.

As an analogy, consider the organization of things on your desk. Cleaning it up, organizing things and putting them away might seem like a good idea if you want to achieve a productive working environment, but this doesn’t always work. Sometimes a messy desk is actually what you want because everything you need is available for your use right away. A disorganized desk might look messy, but if its user knows what all the things are and where to look for what they want, then the jumble of things is actually a setup that works for them. The more engaged you are in your work, the more things you need around you to sustain it.

As an extreme example, take a look at the Bloomberg Terminal, a computer system that gives finance professionals real-time access to market data. At first glance, it looks like a terrible mess. But this chaos of information is much like a disorganized desk which makes every item available to the user straight away, so that when they know what they want and where to find it, they can get it without any user interface friction. It’s an ugly thing made for speed and utility rather than beauty.

The design consulting firm, IDEO, proposed a redesign of the interface in 2007, but were rejected. When the user is familiar with a user interface like this, they won’t want it changed. There’s simply nothing to be gained by it. Yes, the learning curve can be improved, but existing users don’t care, and redesigning it will simply introduce more work for them. I’m sure the Bloomberg Terminal can be made better, but the current solution, while far from beautiful, actually works. Traders just want the information, with as little interface friction in-between, and this is exactly what an interface like this gives them.

A good interface works for the user by getting out of their way, not by inviting more interaction. Improvements like the organization and putting away of interface elements in their own groups and menus only matters when it’s actually facilitating something useful, i.e. improving the learning curve or making a mass of information more manageable. Organization for the sake of organization doesn’t ensure a good interface, just as any other design principle applied blindly for no other reason other than being considered a best practice. When in doubt, just use your own interface, and when you experience interface friction, when the interface becomes annoying by getting in the way of what you wanted: get rid of it by replacing it with what you need.