Greetings dear reader. I’m Sientir, the head programmer at Vernacular Games, and today I want to talk about tool user interface design, as tool UI has a powerful impact on how efficiently designers can get work done. This makes them very important!
So then, what makes for a good tool UI? The general answer is simple – a good UI is one that maximizes efficiency while minimizing errors – but actually implementing it can be quite difficult. This is because each tool’s UI is its own problem requiring its own unique solution. Thus the question changes from the general, “What makes for a good tool UI?” to the specific, “What makes for a good UI for this tool?”
I never learned about user interface design in school, so I’ve had to figure things out on my own. The most valuable thing that I’ve had to learn over the course of this self-education is that how people perform actions and do their workflow differs pretty wildly. Therefore, when people who work very differently from me need to use my tools, I have to understand that the UI isn’t yet complete when the functionality exists. Rather, what I need to do is to give the UI a good first pass – make it work for me, basically – and then watch how other users try to use it and adjust it to function in the way that they expect it to work.
In other words, if they try to use the tool in a different way than how it was designed, it isn’t the user that is wrong, but the design. If they think they should be able to double click to do something, then make sure that double clicking does the thing they think it should do! Sometimes that can’t be done, but whenever possible, changing the behavior of UI to match user behavior is generally quicker and more effective at enabling them to use the tool well than is telling them to learn personally unintuitive design.
In the end, my customer when I’m making tools is the guy sitting next to me, and I want to make sure that my tool gets out of the way of what he is trying to do as much as possible. To do that, I need a UI that makes sense to him.
For more on how people process and figure out how things work, I highly recommend The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. While the book itself was written a while ago, its lessons still apply quite strongly to today.