Simpler & Better User Experience

I hope everyone has read last month’s brilliant Onion article, Internet Users Demand Less Interactivity.

Tired of being bombarded with constant requests to share content on social media, bestow ratings, leave comments, and generally “join in on the discussion,” the nation’s Internet users demanded substantially less interactivity this week.

As part of their demands, Internet users from around the country appealed for a drastic reduction in interactive lists, polls, and pop-up slideshows. Sources also called for an end to the badges that some websites award for “checking in” to physical locations, citing the fact that they ostensibly have no meaning, are dumb, and nobody cares about them.

On too many commercial websites there’s a clutter of pop-up images, sliding panels, fake “loading” screens, mobile app offerings, and countless interactive widgets that make one long for the good old days of the simple <blink> tag. Overloading a page with unwanted functionality is one common design failure; others include inscrutable icons and unreadable text. Here are my favorite articles from recent weeks on avoiding such pitfalls and delivering a pleasant user experience, whether on web pages or in native applications.

  • Wells Riley’s Less Aesthetic, More Design points out that far too much discussion of UI design revolves around pure aesthetics, such as the notorious “flat” vs. “skeuomorphic” argument. But what matters about a user interface is whether people can use it, not whether there’s a fake leather border. I’ve got a new metric we should use to evaluate our work. […] “Is my design useful?”

  • Joshua Porter’s Labels always win reiterates the common sense suggestion for making UI elements that people understand: put a text label on them! Text-free icons might win design contests, but your users will hate you if they can’t figure out what they do. Nothing says “manage” like “manage”. In other words, in the battle of clarity between icons and labels, labels always win.

  • Brent Jackson’s I’m Sick of Your Tiny, Tiny Type is near and dear to my heart, or rather to my short-sighted eyes. The Internet is full of pages with microscopic text apparently designed for 24″ CGA monitors, not infrequently combined with incompetent layout that falls apart when zoomed by a browser. Your users aren’t asking for a faster horse – they’re struggling to read your content. Surely that isn’t what you’re going for, and surely that isn’t a good experience.

  • Jackson links to Oliver Reichenstein’s 2006 article The 100% Easy-2-Read Standard which shows that the default text size in web browsers is equivalent to that of printed matter held at normal reading distance. There’s really no need to specify an explicit body text size on a web page – the default is fine, only the line height should be increased a bit. It looks big at first, but once you use it you quickly realize why all browser makers chose this as the default text size.

  • To close with another good rant, Andrew Wulf’s Things On Your Website I Hate covers just about everything the previous articles might have overlooked, such as automatically playing a loud video clip or pulling in content from a million different servers, one slower than the next or possibly failing altogether.

Reading these articles, I realized that my own website had been remiss in not specifying a maximum line width for the benefit of users with large monitors. So now I limit body text width to 48 em, generous but hopefully still readable. Body text is now also justified and hyphenated, assuming your browser supports that feature – surprisingly, Chrome is the laggard here.

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