User Interference

There's a lot about todays web-site interfaces that bug me.  First, let me say that many sites are utterly fantastic and its not the lack of content or style (that plagues many home page sites for example).  It's the sheer overload of unrelated information that makes sites practically indecipherable.

Back in the 'old' days before GUI's there was this thing called text.  Back before there were guidelines and other supremely popular apps from which you could borrow/lift your app's look and feel, there were apps that took over control of your entire machine, where every app was its own domain, where every app had its own rules determining how you could or could not interact with it.

Let's just say, things were bad.  Of course, nobody knew it then.  Everyone just accepted it as the way things were.  Then GUI's came into vogue, there was the Lisa and Mac that showed what a consistent user interface could do for productivity.  Then we had nearly a decade of UI bliss. 

Then came the WEB, and we are back in undiscovered territory.  Interfaces are a mishmash of individual designers whims.  You cannot go between sites and carry forward any knowledge or understanding about how to interact.  Sure, there are buttons to click and fields to enter, but do the buttons always look like buttons and are the fields so obvious?

Every day I visit many sites on the web, and every time I click between them I have to shift mental gears and remember how to navigate each.  Some are so crowded with uninformative text and ads that its near impossible to recognize what you need to do.

Some have menus in side lists, some on top, some on bottom, some embedded in clusters surrounded by ad copy or informative messages.  Some have one or more or all at the same time.  Most 'buttons' are text links to other pages, etc, and they are hard to distinguish from other forms of text cramming a page.  I visited one site for over a month before I realized that you could actually register an account and log in, it was that difficult to recognize what I was seeing on the page.

I guess,  I just wonder if most site designers actually know what they are doing.  I mean there is a lot of knowledge that can be acquired in the design and layout of pages for books, magazines, billboards, etc.  There must be something like that by now for web page design.  Or are we all just flying blind?


Comments (14)

  1. matt says:

    All designers fly by the patterns on the inside of their eyelids – common knowledge.

    btw, great name you got there 😉

  2. An interesting piece on how convoluted and sometimes just impossible to revisit certain websites can be. Poor UI, side lists, top lists, there is just no conformity it would seem. To the enlightened visitor, this must be their equivalent to…

  3. Janie Axtell says:

    One wonders if Lockergnome has read this article. I’m about to quit them in despair since it’s such a struggle to navigate these days.

    The problem need not be from site to site. Infinite loops where apparent onward links take one back to where one came from can be puzzling even if there’s nothing else to compare.

    One thing I liked about HTML 2 and 3.2 was that it was nearly impossible to mess up so badly.

  4. codeman38 says:

    Janie: Glad I’m not the only one who’s been frustrated with Lockergnome’s new design. Personally, I miss the days when they still sent out a plaintext newsletter, and I know I’m not alone there either…

  5. JT... says:

    In some ways I have to agree with you. There are far too many sites out there that are just hard work to navigate. This has happened due to the way that websites are funded ‘Advertisements’. One of the reasons that the web has developed so fast is down to ad’s being shown on sites. I dislike ad’s just as much as the next browser but we can’t dismiss them either.

    One thing that has developed over the past year or two is the fact that nearly everyone uses the same programs for they’re site forums and also blogs. This makes certain browsing easier to work around.

    We can’t make the web completely monotonous by having the same layout and just slightly different content.

    Like life we need to have good and bad, ups and downs.

  6. tinytype says:

    kinda like sites that use ’10pt’ for their font sizes.

  7. The best book I’ve ever found on this is Don’t Make Me Think by Mike Krug – as the title suggests that’s exactly what he proposes for the best UI on web sites, adopt common metaphors – so buttons look like buttons, Search boxes look like search boxes etc…I really recommend that every web developer picks up a copy of this (we even give them to clients now – it’s that good an incredibly easy to understand)

  8. The question is whether standardization is a good thing for the web at this point.

    Perhaps we’re just in the dark-age before the discovery of fire. You can actually see trends in technology and user interface as time passes. Remember the rise and fall of animated gifs? of frames?

    Anyway, pure standardization will never happen, since the user interface is dependant upon the developer’s whims. Just look at the myriad of windows applications that deviate from the path of consistency…

  9. Jay says:

    codeman38 said –

    "Janie: Glad I’m not the only one who’s been frustrated with Lockergnome’s new design. Personally, I miss the days when they still sent out a plaintext newsletter, and I know I’m not alone there either…"

    I second the plaintext newsletter comment….

  10. DanC says:

    Janie: Thanks for mentioning Lockergnome. All I can do is shake my head and wonder what they’re thinking posting links to good advice while ignoring it themselves. I sometimes just skip the newsletter on those days I don’t feel like click click clicking only to find a shareware link at the end. Geez. The gems are sometimes not worth the effort to dig. Standard GUI? Who cares, just don’t make it painful.

  11. JosephCooney says:

    "thick"/"rich" client applications are not immune from this. "Skinning" means that lots of UI commonality between applications is gone.

  12. Matt says:

    Don’t get me started on that either. I equally despise ‘skins’… They makes me get all woogily. Especially when all the demos I’ve seen for Longhorn UI shows the ability to separate UI from code, so that UI ‘designers’ are free to make those unfathomly bad skins in 3D.

  13. codeman38 says:

    DanC: Argh, yes! Back in the day, they used to clearly mark whether they were linking to shareware, freeware, commercial software, or a web-based service… how the mighty have fallen.

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