How to Make the Perfect User Interface
A good user interface takes into account human flaws, minimizes mistakes and users’ irritation. But how do you create a coherent interface? Why is it so important to know about user experience design and what should one learn to create software that would “speak” to its users? We spoke to Andrey Balkansky, senior lecturer at ITMO’s Department of Engineering and Computer Graphics, who recently completed the “User Interface and Information Representation” course at Artem Gorbunov’s Design Bureau in Moscow. The course was conducted by renowned Russian designer Ilya Birman.
Every day we interact with a dozen different interfaces: when we use our smartphones, visit websites, shop online, check our credit card balance, use ATMs, etc. Even when you buy a subway token you get to encounter the interface of a token machine. In any system, the ease of use not only facilitates the success of a website, program or application – it is also an assurance that users can use it in any circumstance, even under stress.
Some of the best examples of accessible interfaces are applications by Google, the iPhone or any credit calculator on most major banks’ websites, which demonstrate the universal principles of interface design. These principles are not affected by the operating system, environment or the device used.
The “User Interface and Information Representation” course at Artem Gorbunov’s Design Bureau is taught by Russian designer Ilya Birman, the creator of a popular typographic layout and the developer of the Aegea blogging engine. The four-day intensive course is dedicated to the principles of effective interaction between users and graphic interfaces: the intricacies of information perception in humans, the formation of user habits, use of text in interface elements and the informational value of text and page layouts. One of the course’s participants was Andrey Balkansky, senior lecturer at ITMO’s Department of Engineering and Computer Graphics.
“I’ve known about the course for a while. Artem Gorbunov’s Design Bureau is one of Russia’s largest design agencies. Besides, the subjects I teach to students are related to interface design,” – says Balkansky – “so all of the topics of this intensive course are relevant to my specialty. This course is for those who want to make electronic systems accessible to users; to make them “speak our language”. Anything can be an electronic system – from a smartphone to an ATM. There is no emphasis on a specific type of system in this course. It’s about screen interfaces, which includes online and mobile applications and numerous everyday devices”
The course is split into two parts: one that’s focused on theory and another that’s more practical. The former emphasizes the basic principle of design work: an interface must not be based on how the code works, but respond to users’ needs and help them fulfill those needs.
Target audience and use case
How does one present data – text, image or a graphic – so that it’s accessible to both a regular user and a Boeing pilot? It might seem that this task has little to do with what designers are usually assumed to do. But it is interface designers, as well as user experience designers and interaction designers, who have the job of developing the structure of such products.
“Basically, these people are similar to writers: they develop the story, make algorithms, sketch out the screens and then send it to graphic designers who pick out the colors and the fonts. And they pick them not because they feel like it, but with an understanding of what the product’s target audience is. All elements, their shapes and colors and the like are picked for a specific audience: children, elderly, people who work in dimly-lit spaces. This course is about this upper level of the process – how to create interface elements, present text and graphics in a way that would let people navigate easily through the interface; so that they would know intuitively what will happen if they press this or that button and what the system expects them to do,” – explains Andrey.
Artem Gorbunov's Design Bureau
Despite the somewhat narrow understanding of what designers do in Russia, even a clothing designer should understand the human anatomy, as well as create parts in such a way that their clothing would account for the specifics of the human body and respond to the needs of a particular target audience. Designers in general and particularly interface designers always need to keep in mind the context in which their product is used and develop their use case in advance.
“Interface syntax”: why it matters
Another issue that Russian interface designers tend to run into has to do with the complex grammar of the Russian language, although even major developers often ignore this problem. Even Facebook still hasn’t implemented name declination in its Russian version, which makes for an unsightly interface. Meanwhile, networks like VK have long ago implemented such features.
English is slightly easier to work with in this regard. But, when creating products for a Russian audience, it is not enough to simply translate everything as-is.
“It’s no secret that Russian-language interfaces often become confusing due to such issues. To describe this problem, Ilya Birman has coined the term “interface syntax”. One of the topics in our course was actually about making interface read like any other text. It’s great that this is brought up as part of the course, as a lot of professional literature for interface designers has also been translated for English and thus doesn’t offer any advice on this topic,” – explains Balkansky.
Not just theory
In addition to lectures, the course included a number of practice-oriented sessions, both for groups and individual ones. In the end, students had to complete their own project and create a user interface for a specific purpose, which they would then showcase to others. Andrey’s task was to create an interface for a subway token machine. The main requirement was to create a kind of basis for a future product and develop scenarios for interaction between users and the interface, as well as to provide logical explanations for the inclusion of each element.
“It’s impossible to develop and finalize an interface in a day, just like it’s impossible to acquire a new skill in four days. To become an expert in interface design, you’d need to spend at least a year in a specialized course or enroll in a Bachelor’s or Master’s program. This course, however, has more of an introductory character – it loads you up on theoretical knowledge which you can digest and put to use later. Acquired skills can be used in different fields that deal with the representation of information,” – he explains.
Education in the field of interface design can be acquired, for instance, at ITMO University, where the Master’s degree program in “Design of Human-Computer Systems” has been in place since 2015 at the Department of Engineering and Computer Graphics.
ITMO's Usability Lab
The department’s students often participate in short-term internships abroad; one of the department’s partners is Tallinn University. Educational programs there include not only subjects related to programming and graphic design, but also a basic set of psychology-related subjects. Such a combination of technical sciences and humanities helps form well-rounded specialists.
“I believe that an interface designer should be able to think in terms of tasks: whatever you’re developing, first and foremost you need to understand the task, the context and the audience. Such a paradigm will help a designer develop in different areas. A designer should think not as a decorator, but a strategist – someone who does things in order to complete tasks and fulfill goals. Of course, this doesn’t mean aesthetics aren’t necessary. An interface designer should also be familiar with the history of arts, history of technology, the fundamentals of psychology – the basic things, at least. Those kids who are just starting their Bachelor’s degrees – they still haven’t made a mental connection between psychology and the common conception of a designer as this artsy hipster type. It’s a bit easier with Master’s students: these guys have already done project work and they know that if you’re doing something for people, you need to understand them,” – he concludes.