User interface design and its importance in the user experience
A product’s user experience consists of the before, during, and after of a user’s interactions with it, or more precisely, their expectation, satisfaction, and fulfilment. Experience can be influenced by anything from marketing materials, product reviews, interaction with sales, through to cost, installation and onboarding process, product stability, post-sales support, and numerous other factors. So it’s clear that creating a positive experience is a collective responsibility.
Puppet’s User Experience (UX) team is concerned with all aspects of the user experience, but many are out of our direct control, such as someone’s perception of our brand or the reliability of our hosting. Our main focus and the area upon which we can exert the most influence is product usability. Usability is a core pillar of user experience and focuses on the effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction of a product during its use, i.e. how effective it is in helping a user achieve their intended goal, how efficiently they can do that, and the satisfaction they gain from their needs and requirements being met within a specified context of use. Poor usability results in poor user experience.
More than aesthetics
User interface (UI) design has the potential to greatly enhance or detract from the usability of a product. It’s often misunderstood as the part of the process where we just “make things look beautiful,” but UI design involves much more than simple aesthetics.
With usability focusing on effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction, it’s easy to think that UI design might be concerned solely with the latter, but a UI designer has to consider all of these. The best user research, information architecture, and wireframing in the world can be undone by a poorly designed user interface that makes the process of completing a task or achieving a goal much more painful.
Equally, a well-considered and beautiful design is nothing in isolation. There is no shortage of websites showcasing UI design concepts that are aesthetically pleasing on first glance but disconnected from any real context of use. In these cases, considerations for usability and technical feasibility may have been ignored, making the designs purely style over substance.
When designing the user interface, our goal is to enable the user to achieve their goals as efficiently as possible, and we can use visual cues to make that straightforward. Creating predictable interfaces that conform to common heuristics or standards, and affordances that make it clear what something does before you interact with it, all help with discoverability.
Information hierarchy -- a principle that extends across all forms of design -- is the process we use to organise content and adjust prominence based on its importance. Through careful consideration of each element and its size, position, colour, contrast, and typographic choices, we can help guide users towards the onscreen elements that we understand to be most important to their workflows.
Designs can also be enhanced by adding subtle feedback mechanisms such as hover states, loading screens, transitions, and animations, which can offer the user a sense of progress or completion. The app-based bank Monzo (which has disrupted an entire banking industry through excellent user experience) uses sound as a feedback mechanism, with a satisfying cash register ‘ker-ching’ to instantly confirm a transaction.
While there’s a great deal of creative freedom in the UI design process, there are also considerations such as accessibility, brand guidelines, technical feasibility, and project deadlines that need to be taken into account at every stage which can lead to hundreds of micro-decisions having to be made in each design.
At Puppet, we’ve streamlined much of our UI design process by creating a design system. Consisting of design assets and code, the Puppet Design System is a shared set of behaviours, patterns, styles, components, and standards we use to create a unified experience for our users across our products. While design systems are not a panacea for poor usability, they do help reduce many of the decisions that come with the risk of potential errors, such as ensuring that colour contrasts conform to WCAG 2.0 level AA for accessibility and that typography is legible.
UI design is much more than just aesthetics, but there’s still considerable value in creating something that is visually satisfying and provides the user joy. The systems we use, and our reasons for using them, have come a long way from their utilitarian origins and users have become much more discerning in their preferences. Users don’t need design expertise to know when something just looks and feels better.
And joy can be provided beyond the core interface design. Whether that’s through unicorns occasionally shooting across the screen when a task is completed in Asana or a quirky 404 error page that uses well-chosen copy and imagery to pivot a potentially negative experience, these little Easter eggs help to create positive emotional responses. A product that is pleasurable to use is one that our users will enjoy coming back to.
By combining a deep understanding of the user with great usability and captivating design that is capable of provoking positive responses, we have a powerful force that will help drive compelling user experiences and make the users of our products consistently feel more efficient, effective, and satisfied.