Things To Do When Your UI Is Dead

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The web user interface for an application can make or break a website, so following some suggestions on developing an effective UI will benefit the site publisher.

Remember the good old days of web development, back around ’97, when “Creating Killer Web Sites” seemed like a good idea, with its entry page concept that quickly became extinct when search engines and online advertising began to take off?

Today, a webmaster would sooner gnosh on a live power cable than design a site that does not follow the commandments set down by Google. While a site publisher will desire search engine attractiveness, it is sensible design atop quality content that draws the links and helps along the organic search ranking.

Not everyone has read Edward Tufte’sThe Visual Display of Quantitative Information.” Most web developers should read it, while a select few deserve to have this classic hardcover dropped on their heads, preferably from a great height.

When people speak of history repeating itself, it’s usually done with a negative connotation. But history can repeat in good ways as well, which is what Tufte illustrated in his work, using examples from as far back as the 1600s to show what works.

Tufte still travels and lectures on the topic of visual design, and discusses design for the Internet. There are a few tricks developers can utilize to improve the design of a website, without taking in a Tufte class.

A recent blog post by Mike Arace of 18th Street Software discussed six useful tips for “sane user interfaces.” He noted how rare it is for firms to have people performing specialized roles like graphic designer and programmer, and how they instead look for people who can do everything when it comes to a web application.

His tips are aimed at those people who are part Photoshop hero, part database master, and part coding genius. He made some sensible suggestions in his post, listed in bold, which I’ve commented on here:

Start with the end in mind – Arace noted activity diagrams will help developers see where users will proceed through an application, before coding the app or building its database schema.
Think sequentially – users should understand how to move through a data entry process because the site describes how to do so.
Don’t get cute – Ajax and widgets have their place, but that doesn’t have to be everyplace on a site.
Don’t count on documentation – just because the application has documentation doesn’t mean users will read it first before diving into a form.
Group things – Arace likes the “underutilized HTML elements” FIELDSET and LEGEND to make forms cleaner.
Web apps aren’t database interfaces – “If your web app looks a lot like phpMyAdmin, you may want to change it,” wrote Arace.

Sanity does not mean a Google-style simplicity, but a minimalism that communicates directly to the user what they are expected to do with a web application. Anything that makes the user experience easier makes the user happier. Happy users tend to be repeat users, and for a website focused on online retail, loyalty can be a rich reward.


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David Utter is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business.

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