How Much Does Good User Interface Design Matter?
We’ve come to think about technology as being such a regular part of daily life, that we barely remember a time when it wasn’t. This could be because some us aren’t even old enough to remember back that far. There are some younger millennials who have no reference for a non-digitized world. However, older millennials and gen Xers probably remember what a treat it was to play Oregon Trail on one of the two school computers.
Technology has become such a major part of our daily lives that we can sometimes forget that the websites and apps we use haven’t been around all that long. Gone are the days of DOS, dial-up, and dots representing figures in a computer game. What we experience now barely resembles the user interface (UI) of computers and games only a couple of decades ago. And, it’s all thanks to a changing UI, which is how the user interacts with websites or apps.
All these wonderful advancements mean a change in user expectations. We refer to the collection of experiences visitors have on your website as user experience (UX). The UI should follow UX strategy. It will affect how your visitor feels about using your website or app. Don’t forget, your user might be your own employees! No matter the platform, a great UI is crucial today, and here’s why.
Reintroducing The User Interface (UI)
UI is anything a user may interact with on a website or within an app, such as screens, touchscreens, keyboards, sounds, lights, and even the text users read. And UI design is the process designers use to create the interfaces with a focus on aesthetics and style with the goal of providing a great user experience (UX).
There’s a lot of terminologies that get tossed around in the web design industry. UX, UI…what do they mean and how are they different? We discuss the differences in-depth in our article, UX, UI, and Usability - What They Are & How They Differ. But, essentially the user interface is the collection of icons, buttons, pages, and all the visual elements that allow a user to interact with your website or app.
It might help to think of your website as a physical location. Your home page is the front door, and once a customer has arrived, they’re going to want to look around. Except, on your website, you don’t have the luxury of greeting them face to face and offering assistance. The users are left to find everything on their own.
You wouldn’t be sloppy with the placement of the merchandise in a physical location. You’d want the customer to be able to wander around and find what they’re looking for easily. You wouldn’t make the customer work for it.
A great UI is like a smart layout. It draws the user in, encourages them to stay, and makes it easy for them to find everything they’re looking for and more.
Common UI Formats
Now that we know what UI is, let’s talk about some UI formats.
1. Voice-controlled interface (VUI)
VUI uses speech recognition technology that lets users interact with technology using their voices. Alexa, “Play my favorite playlist.” Siri, “What does my day look like.”
According to Clifford Nass, Stanford researcher and co-author of Wired for Speech, “Speech is the fundamental means of human communication…all cultures persuade, inform and build relationships primarily through speech.”
2. Graphical user interface (GUI)
GUI (often pronounced as “gooey”) helps your users interact within your website or app without having to type commands. GUI allows users to interact through graphical elements, such as windows, icons, checkboxes, and buttons. Some specific functions include:
- Clicking an icon to open an app
- Moving a file or document into a different folder
3. Gesture-based interface
With gesture-based interfaces, a user employs gestures, like scrolling, pinching, or tapping to interact with an interface, website, or app. Gesture-based interface also refers to gesture recognition such as eye motion, tipping or tilting, and shaking. A great example would be Xbox 360.
Gestures help users to navigate between views, take actions, and manipulate content and include the following types:
- Navigational gestures - help users navigate through a website or app with actions like swiping, scrolling, dragging, pinching
- Action gestures - perform actions or provide shortcuts by allowing users to tap, swipe or slide, and long press
- Transform gestures allow users to use gestures to transform objects like and element’s size, position, or rotation
The Basics of Designing User Interfaces
Knowing that UI is how users interact with websites and apps, the basics of design must focus on anticipating what actions a user may take and making sure that the UI has elements that are easy to access, use, and understand in order to complete those actions. It begins with knowing who your users are, their goals, skill level, and preferences. Once you know who the users are, you can begin to employ UI design basics that allow users to easily complete tasks and actions. These basics include visual and interaction design, information architecture, and proper elements.
Putting Together Interface Elements
As we covered in 6 App Navigation Design Mistakes to Avoid, users have come to expect websites, apps, and other interfaces to behave, react, and look a certain way. If an element looks like a button, users expect it to behave like a button.
Understanding what users expect is important in UI design elements. These elements are the pieces used to build websites and apps, making them interactive. These are your scrollbars, buttons, checkboxes, and dropdowns. Elements are typically chunked into four categories:
- Input Controls - checkboxes, radio buttons, dropdown lists, list boxes, buttons, toggles, text fields, date field
- Navigational Components - breadcrumb, slider, search field, pagination, slider, tags, icons
- Informational Components - tooltips, icons, progress bar, notifications, message boxes, modal windows
- Containers - accordion, widgets, carousels
Best Practices in Making A Better UI
When it comes to UI, you must keep in mind your intended user. If you don’t know who that is, you need to back up and figure that one out before moving forward. UI must work for the user in many ways, beyond being aesthetically pleasing. Good UI:
- Is intuitive
- Lets the user undo or reverse actions
- Easy to navigate with clear feedback and navigational cues
- Usable regardless of skill level
- Consistent across the platform and with what a user might expect
1. Put Users in Control
Users should never feel like they’re at the mercy of the website or app. They need to feel like they’re in control, driving the bus where they want or need it to go. Good UI design will help them achieve that feeling of control.
Make Allowances for Errors That Can Be Reversed
We’ve all been there when we’ve hit submit and didn’t really mean it or input an incorrect entry. Oops, now what? To err is to be human, no matter how clean your design might be. Make certain your UI not only allows for errors but tolerates them by letting users undo actions and being forgiving with varied inputs. Don’t force a user to start over because of a single error. Another tip, if the user causes an error, make sure that your messaging is teachable by showing what caused the error and ensure they will not repeat the error.
Make it Easy to Navigate
A kind UI and UX means users feel comfortable and empowered to click through without feeling lost. Nurture that experience with navigation that is clear and visible. Let users know where they are, where they’ve been, and where they can go. This can be done with visual clues such as page titles and highlighting selected navigation options.
Acknowledge Actions Through Feedback
Feedback lets your users know what’s going on, that the action they took is in progress, or the current state of the website or app. Let your users know of actions, changes in state, and errors or exceptions. This can be achieved with visual cues, like color or font change, or simple messaging.
Make the System Status Visible
Don’t leave your users hanging when your website or app appears to be hitting a snag. If the interface isn’t meeting expected response times, provide feedback with progress indicators that let users know the status. Progress indicators reassure the user that something is happening, give them something visual to look at, and provide an estimate of wait time in many cases.
Accommodate Different Skill Levels
You want users to be comfortable with your website or app, and that should go for all users of any skill level. Design in a way that it doesn’t matter if your user is a new user or an old pro. Offer up tutorials and explanations for the novice user and as they become more familiar, they’ll then begin to look for shortcuts and faster paths that the experienced user will expect.
2. Make Comfort The Core of Design
Ever walk into a messy room and immediately cringe and turn around to leave? Make sure your website or app doesn’t invoke that feeling for your user. You want them to walk in, so to speak, and feel like they can sit down and relax.
Make It Simple and Relevant
UI should be invisible to the user. Interfaces should use only necessary elements and be clear in the language used on labels and in messaging. Before adding an element or text, ask, “Does the user really need that?” and “Does the language make sense to the user?” Or even better, “Does the language mirror the user’s? Can they see themselves in the UI?”
Don’t Ask for Data That Already Exists in the System
You know how annoying it is when you go to the doctor’s office and are asked to fill out a stack of forms with the same information over and over? Don’t do that to your users. They’ll quickly become annoyed and possibly back out entirely. If the user has already entered the information, don’t force them to re-enter. Let the UI do the heavy lifting on the back end.
Use Common Terminology
As with the design elements, simple is the way to go. Keep in mind the terminology of your user and keep the language simple. Speak the user’s language using words, phrases, and concepts that will be familiar. Avoid jargon!
Make Interactive Elements More Visible and Accessible
According to The International Design Foundation, “Fitts’ law states that the amount of time required for a person to move a pointer (e.g., mouse cursor) to a target area is a function of the distance to the target divided by the size of the target.” Therefore, it’s better to design larger targets for important functions. Additionally, keep in mind that the time to acquire multiple targets is the sum of how long it takes to acquire each one. Reduce the distances and increase target sizes as well as reduce the number of targets required to complete a task. For example, to help your user move quickly through a series of screens, place the “Next” button near the last entry field on the page to reduce the distance the cursor must travel.
Use Real-World Metaphors: Make Them Feel Familiar
In UI, an interface metaphor is a set of UI visuals, actions, and procedures that pull from specific knowledge that users already have of other areas. For example, when you see an image of a trash can on a website, your mind can quickly connect the dots that the image they see is what they would expect for deleting a file. You wouldn’t put an image of a house and expect the user to select that icon to delete the file.
Address Errors and Prevent Them
As previously discussed, no matter how clean your interface is, errors can happen. Plan for them and provide appropriate, clear messaging to the user that helps them understand why the error happened and how to avoid it in the future. Of course, you try to eliminate conditions that may cause an error, but also check for them and let the user know about a potential error with things like a confirmation dialogue. For example, “Are you sure you want to delete?”
Secure the Users’ Work
As we’ve mentioned, errors happen. A user may accidentally hit refresh or a back button, a system error could occur, or maybe the internet connection is lost while completing a task. Be proactive in ensuring their work is not lost.
3. Lessen Cognitive Loads
Cognitive load is the amount of information that working memory can hold at one time. And as it relates to your website or app, it’s the amount of mental processing required to use the website or app. Think about your computer, the more apps you have running, the slower the processing. Good UI will lessen the cognitive load for users and can be achieved with a few basic principles.
Chunking for Sequences of Information or Actions
The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines it as “the process by which the mind divides large pieces of information into smaller units (chunks) that are easier to retain in short-term memory… one item in memory can stand for multiple other items.” By chunking content (both textual and graphical), you’re allowing users to easily scan your website or app and comprehend and remember the information.
Create a Streamlined Sequence to Finish a Task
Help your users complete their tasks as quickly and efficiently as possible by reducing the number of actions required. Don’t require four clicks when two will suffice.
Recognition over Recall
Recognition is when we first recognize something as being familiar. Recall is the retrieval of the details. According to Nielsen Norman Group, “Recognition is easier than recall because it involves more cues: all those cues spread activation to related information in memory, raise the answer’s activation, and make you more likely to pick it.” Good UX design ensures that the user has the information they need and are able to complete the tasks easily.
Promote Visual Clarity
Promote visual clarity by reducing the clutter and avoiding visual distractions. Cut redundant links or images that aren’t relevant. Display only what is necessary and use a mix of images and text. Follow the general principles of content organization, which include grouping similar items, numbering items, and using headings.
4. Keep It Consistent
Consistency is your friend. Good UI is consistent in style and function and aligns with a user’s mental model, which is their intuitive knowledge of how something is supposed to work based on their own experience. Use the same colors and fonts throughout for visual consistency. If you have a submit button that is blue on one page, don’t make it gray on another. Ensure functional consistency by making sure that controls and elements work the same throughout. Users have expectations about how websites and apps should function and behave. Follow basic guidelines and don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Stick to standard terminology, patterns, and platforms.
Why A Good User Interface is Important
A good user interface is more than looking nice and being functional. When you have a great UI, you also have a sales tool and loyalty builder that will bring users back.
Great UI Provides an Intuitive Experience
A major factor of UX is how intuitive a site is to use. If your user interface can provide simple navigation and a logical process for how things are presented, you’re going to win over the hearts of your users. It’s all about creating a UI design that looks good and makes sense, and for the average user, these two things are synonymous.
Nobody wants to land on a site and feel like they’re being visually attacked. Too much going on leaves the user wondering where to click and where to go next. A great UI should clean up any clutter, remove the confusion, and present your website or app in a way that’s visually appealing to the user. You should actually be more reserved in how you apply the color from your color palette.
The visual appeal factor is important because 38% of people will leave a site if they don’t find it attractive. UI elements like clear, easy to use navigation bars and clickable elements that make sense lead the user along the consumer journey in a logical progression. This means one thing for your business: A boost in conversions.
Think about it. Any website you visit has anywhere from 10 to over 100 competitors. If you visited a site that wasn’t intuitive to use, how much effort would you put in before moving on to the next brand? It’s all in the details, and when it comes to UI, small details have a big impact on conversions.
Good UI Is Goal Oriented
It’s critical to consider what the user (possibly a customer) wants and needs when building a website. In fact, UX design is focused entirely on predicting what the customer sees as a great experience. It only makes sense that a good UI design aligns with this approach. Except that with UI, the focus needs to be slightly different. UX is about understanding the customer’s journey. The UI, on the other hand, is about supporting the customer’s journey, helping them along their path to perform their UX defined goals.
In other words, UI should be designed with the end user’s goals in mind. For example, the users that land on your site are at multiple points in the customer journey. For some, it could be their first experience with your brand, while others have done their research and visited your website plenty of times.
What do these two people have in common? They both have a goal in mind, and it’s the UI’s job to help them achieve it by executing what was planned out in the UX. When the user is ready to make a move, great UI design makes it easy. It helps them get where they’re going, get in and get out so they can get on with their lives.
Without a great UI design, this process can become muddled and leave the visitor frustrated and questioning whether they want to continue a relationship with your brand.
It Turns Visitors into Customers
For UI design to have a positive impact, it constantly needs to be reevaluated. For example, the surge in mobile usage — 75% of adults own and use a smartphone regularly, and mobile saturation is only expected to keep growing. Smartphone technology is constantly evolving and this means changing expectations in how people want to interact with their devices.
For example, we can look at how last year we saw more and more sites going with hidden navigation as users became tired of clunky navigation bars crowding out their mobile screens, or how card design became popular because it made content consumption on mobile devices so much easier.
UI affects how users feel about your website and that determines whether they’ll hang around or bounce out of town. There’s no reason to lose a customer to the competition over something as simple and straightforward as great UI design.
UI design is one of the easiest ways to encourage visitors to engage and eventually become customers. After your UX strategy, and all that it entails, make sure that your UI design is on point for success.
It Raises Engagement with Your User Base
UI plays a major role in encouraging engagement on your website or app. Users visit websites or interact with apps with a specific intent, from learning more about UX best practices to buying a gift for a friend.
The best UI design takes into consideration the user’s intent and guides them to their desired action. Not only should your website or app provide relevant content that’s useful, but it should also be inviting and engaging. The visuals from UI design help marry functionality and aesthetics and make the website or app approachable to the user.
Utilizing The UI to Make A Good Impact on Your Business
When thinking about UI, you often think about the visuals and the overall aesthetics of the website or app. There’s a good reason for that. They play a serious role in increasing user engagement. When users are easily able to interact with your website, find what they want, or complete an action quickly along with finding relevant information, they’re far more likely to return. A happy customer is a repeat customer. So it’s important to keep in mind that UI is also about what happens before, during, and after a user engages with a website or app.
Great UI melds functionality and aesthetics seamlessly through the use of visuals that aid users as they engage with your website or interact with your app. When your website or app meets the user’s expectations and is easy to navigate, your conversion rates will increase.
“A well-designed user interface could raise your website’s conversion rate by up to a 200%, and a better UX design could yield conversion rates up to 400%.” - Source
Key Points in Designing Your Products
Whether it’s a website or an app, UI is how the user interacts with the product. When designing for the product, whatever it may be, there are key guidelines to follow to ensure that users can successfully engage with it.
Have you been to a website and it looked amazing — pretty images, easy to use — but then found no real value? Did you go back to that website? Probably not. This is why you must know what your users really want and need and provide it. Great UI means it’s also providing value, not just being aesthetically pleasing.
“79% of people who don't like what they find on 1 site, will go search for another site.” - Source
Make it Accessible
To provide a good UI, you need to make it accessible. You want to reach as many users as possible and that means designing with users of all abilities in mind, from their skill levels to vision, hearing, motor, or cognitive impairments.
Design with Intent
Good UI will be clean, simple, and easy to use. That means each element must be intentional and serve a purpose.
You want your users to be able to quickly and efficiently interact with your product. To make that happen, it needs to be intuitive. Users don’t want to have to think about what they’re doing, they just want to complete a task quickly.
Make it Invisible
When the UI is invisible to the user, it makes it easier for them to navigate and complete their tasks. Let the users interact with the product, not the interface.
Make it Look Nice
Part of a good UI is that it looks good. First, it must be functional and meet the needs of the user. But it must also be aesthetically pleasing and reflect the personality of the brand. Keep in mind that the look must reinforce the functionality, not distract from it.
Take Your UI Design to the Next Level
Since UI and UX development largely focus on the users’ satisfaction and pleasure, it plays an important role in the business’ success. From a business’s point of view, it is essential to emphasize the users’ satisfaction to build your brand value and reputation and UI is a key factor in ensuring that satisfaction.
When the UI is functional, efficient, and appealing, users are more likely to continue to engage with your product. When a UI is done right, it reflects the brand’s tone, offers relevant and valuable information, and lets the user achieve their goals easily.
With IT being a competitive field, the need for exceptional UI design to grab the consumers’ attention and revenue from the company’s products is quite crucial. If the users are searching through your website or using your app, your UI is responsible for navigating them easily to their predetermined goal in the most efficient way, while being both valuable and relevant. If it’s not, users will go elsewhere.
With an endless number of websites and apps for users to choose from, great UI is what can make yours stand out. That’s why UI design has become a significant part of today’s website and app development processes.
Abdul has helped over 40 Fortune 500 companies make informed user-centered design decisions through evidence-based user research and UX best practices. As an Adjunct Professor, Abdul has taught in DePaul University’s graduate UX programs and for nine other universities.