A Bad User Interface Could Be Losing You Business

From information kiosk displays that are unreadable in bright sunlight to touch screen icons too small for even the slimmest fingers, everybody has experienced the disappointment, frustration and sheer inconvenience of a bad user interface.

But, given the massive leaps in interface technologies, the growth of an industry devoted to delivering enhanced user experience, and the received wisdom that the iPhone and iPad represent user experience benchmarks, there really is no excuse for companies to be delivering products that fall short of expectations.

What’s more, as well as putting off users (and customers), developing a poor interface doesn’t necessarily take any less time or require less investment than developing a good one!

Company culture clearly plays a role in the ongoing appearance of poor user interfaces. It is not uncommon, for example, for there to be barriers or even downright hostility between marketing teams who understand the requirement, and the engineering teams who will work on the design. And at the risk of sounding ‘ageist’, a culture that doesn’t include the right mix of ‘young bloods’ that have grown up with LCD-based and multi touch interfaces may also present some impediments to success.

Alternatively – or additionally – the culture may expect designers and engineers to do everything ‘in-house’, may leave them to their own devices or may allow them to develop an interface because it would be an interesting project. Regrettably, as we have said many times before – and to badly paraphrase Aristotle – an engineer does not (necessarily) a good interface designer make, and programming a GUI (graphical user interface) is not the same as GUI design.

Of course, there are always arguments for in-house work, but unless internal resources include an experienced team dedicated to delivering interfaces based around user expectations and requirements it is typically better to focus engineering resources on core competencies that deliver competitive advantage. And there is much evidence that engineers getting involved in things they have to learn, while interesting in terms of personal development, can actually lead to longer project development timescales.

As you would expect, cost also plays a role – outsourcing to third parties may seem like an expensive option but the NRE costs of good interface design and consultancy can be recouped many times over through sales of products that give the user an enhanced, enjoyable and intuitive experience.

Putting aside cultural and cost issues in my opinion the worst ‘crime’ in terms of poor user interface design comes from not actually considering the user. It sounds unbelievable but it is a much more common problem than you might think.

It may seem clear that a product development process that is not ‘user-centric’ is destined to failure but many companies still embark on interface design from a ‘specs perspective’ – i.e. what the specification needs to deliver functionally rather than how the user will interact with a product or a system at a ‘cognitive’ level.

Engaging with all potential end users – both at the start of a project and through iterative consultation and verification throughout the design, development, prototyping and testing cycle – is absolutely essential. And the emphasis here really is on the end user.

Focus groups involving managers of the end user are not the same and will not help to deliver the optimum user experience. Sure, get the managers involved but don’t let their influence unduly skew the focus of the user interface design.

Fundamentally delivering world class user interface experiences can be achieved with the right approach and there really is no excuse for the many poor examples we come across in our daily lives.

However, what the prevalence of these sub-standard interfaces does create is opportunities for the right companies – those in which marketing works in harmony with engineering, where there is a culture of leveraging core competencies, a recognition that external resources are an investment rather than a cost, and where there is a fundamental understanding that a user-centric approach is at the heart of good interface design – to develop interfaces that, by optimizing and enhancing the user experience, deliver significant competitive advantage.

Rob Anders is the Chief Executive of Tiny Green PC, the official European supplier of the Fit PC and Intense PC range of embedded enterprise computer systems.