Interface design values

Clarity above all. Efficiency when interfaces are clear. Consistency when interfaces are efficient. Beauty when interfaces are consistent.

8th December, 2017

When designing interfaces, we value clarity, efficiency, consistency, and beauty. Designing interfaces with these values in balance is possible. Unfortunately, it’s time — and resource — intensive. To get things done, we make sacrifices.

When we’re forced to make sacrifices, we focus on:

Clarity above all

Everyone should understand the content of an interface. They should also understand the consequences of every action. This shouldn’t demand training. For example, a guitar only takes a few seconds to understand, but a lifetime to master.

When an interface isn’t clear, making it more efficient will only help people with training. This creates a dependency inside the organization. It’s difficult to scale training. It’s far easier to scale an organization that has software with clear interfaces.

Clarity isn’t concerned with mastery of the process the interface supports. Only that the interface accurately represents its content and capabilities.

Efficiency when interfaces are clear

People should be able to complete their job-to-be-done without thinking about the interface. For example, a book reader shouldn’t be thinking about the binding, pages, and size of the text. The interface should “fit” the situation well enough to fade into the background.

Our first attempt to make an interface more efficient is to make it familiar. Unfortunately, using known patterns to create the illusion of familiarity hides process inefficiencies. It can look and feel right — tricking people into believing it’s efficient. Concentrate on the mechanics. Optimize the process.

Efficiency isn’t concerned with a person’s history with an interface. It is only concerned with a person using an interface with little to no effort.

Consistency when interfaces are efficient

Using interfaces with similar goals shouldn’t demand learning separate processes. For example, pulling a door handle to enter a room, then pushing a door panel to enter the next room. If someone has taken the time to learn a process, use that knowledge.

The desire to make a boring interface more exciting leads to abandoning familiarity. The trade is rarely worthwhile. The delight of assuming how an interface works, and being correct, is hard to beat. When an interface just works the person using it feels more competent. In control. Powerful.

Consistency isn’t concerned with what a person finds interesting. It is only concerned with a person correctly assuming how an interface operates.

Beauty when interfaces are consistent

When someone is using an interface, it should look and feel like other related interfaces. Not functionally consistent — aesthetically consistent. For example, imagine someone wearing pajamas to a black tie affair. Something went wrong. Pajamas are great, but not when everyone else is wearing a tux or a gown.

Everyone has cosmetic preferences. One person might find something gorgeous, while another finds it hideous. Only after a theme emerges can an interface “feel right” in relation to other interfaces.

Beauty isn’t concerned with an individual’s cosmetic preference. It is only concerned with a larger population’s sense of a coherent look and feel.

We (Iora Health designers) first noticed clarity, efficiency, consistency, and beauty in the Salesforce Design System. It immediately felt right. Unfortunately, there is little definition of these principles. Or how they relate to each other. After months of discussions using these principles, it felt worth expanding on them. Thank you Salesforce designers for triggering this effort. We hope this is a helpful extension of your work.

Originally published on my Medium account as Interface design values for the Intensive Code Unit publication.

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