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Evolving, User Interface standards
 
User Interface, one of the widely discussed subject these days after search engines. Every software development team either hires a UI specialist or consults an expert to design the next best killer application. As more and more users log onto the net, user base tends to grow and new technologies evolve, web developers and designers are left with very little time to cope up with new techniques in user interface. Thus a new wave of User Interface issues has occurred in the software development life cycle.
User Interface puzzle - Last winter I was puzzled with a situation wherein I was asked to determine the user guidelines and standards for the company that I was consulting, had to dig deep into the problem to find out which user interface best suited them. I guess as a developer, analyst or UI specialist one would commonly come across in one’s project life cycle, here is how I kept myself abreast with new technology and UI standards.

Analyze current market trends in Usability – The first step before you can start in order to determine the technique and standards to adapt, look around in the market for latest trends and here is what I found from Microsoft to Apple it was all about usability, every new application that is designed are “user centric” or “user friendly”.

Apple's huge success of iPod could be determined as part of its user friendly mp3 music player, while rest of the competitors are still tweaking their units to gain market share.
Apple's new OS (Operating system) Tiger, is another good example to understand users and developing the user interface with right technology which changed the new look and feel of the most awaited version of Microsoft, Longhorn.
Microsoft's new OS Longhorn has brought forth similar changes to its UI, something very catchy if you're like me. The program menu and the entire fly-out menu that appears if you have installed unwieldy list of programs, is gone which was a real nuisance. In the new version, a scrolling list of your programs is built in a sub window on the left side of the start menu and a small dialog entry box is alive at the bottom of the start menu, Microsoft finally gave its ears to howling users.

Now it gets challenging to figure out how I can make things work and be able to create such drastic UI changes and if I have to change, how do I proceed? What would be my thumb rule for changes? All these questions start haunting you and you might not have answers and this is what makes it interesting.

User Interface is mainly dependant on TWO main factors
  • User skill set
  • Technology

User skill set

Every time an application is built you need to keep in mind it is for the users who could vary from novice to an expert, the success of your application is purely dependant on how efficiently the users use the application.

Building applications for users introduces us to the topic of persona, these days all major software vendors are persona concept based applications. Personas are synthesized from a series of ethnographic interviews with real people, recorded behavior patterns, goals, skills, attitudes, and environment, thus developers are aware of the users feelings and build better applications keeping the persona in mind.

User Skill set is very essential for understanding their knowledge in application usage that you are building, some users have no knowledge and some have all the Knowledge whom I call as “Geeks”, with such extremes you tend to have the “Gap” of users as illustrated below.

             
The User Interface Engineering (UIE) group refers the gap as "The Knowledge Gap", and every organization should and must educate their users to upgrade current knowledge point and develop applications intuitive enough to satisfy a broad band of users.

Technology:

Evolving technology is another key factor in building new UI designs and interfaces; again I did some market research for typical stateless protocol applications (web based apps). My findings relived that the search engine giant has taken a leap in this technology and is exploring newer frontiers as we read the following article.

Market Trends:
In Google's email the key distinguish factor is user interface, ability to read, compose and send emails is made lot easier and they achieved by using the latest web technology called AJAX - abbreviated for Asynchronous JavaScript + XML, making it more interactive and user friendly.

The spell checking mechanism and ability to choose email address from list by typing few letters of the email are some of the features where this technology is more relevant and the presence is felt by the users.

Few of the killer web based applications that have evolved on this technology and are going to hit the market in few months from now

1. Google's email
2. Google’s Suggest
3. Google's Maps
4. AOL's new travel website
 

Moving On….
Ok, now onto real question as to, how do I build applications with better User Interface?
Their is no cookie cutter answer to this question, UI is a process and dependant on two key factors as I indicated, with each iteration of software development we weigh in the skill set of users and the technology at our disposal and build applications.

I practice this UI process along with some standard Software development life cycles (SDLC) as listed below:
  • Interaction with stake holders to gather requirements, assess their skill set • Create Personas to define the user base
  • Prepare proto types for user feedback, usability tests
  • Share the results with stake holders and development teams ( it is like a blue print before you construct a house)
  • Let your development team get innovative with components and technical stuff, keeping the frame work in mind
  • Have a review of alpha version of your application with users
  • Share it with beta users, watch them while they use your killer application
  • Provide feedback on the usage and fine tune it for before you launch

Few companies go an extra step in building a User Interface Guideline so developers and designers can abide by those guidelines during development for a consistent look and feel of applications/web pages.

User Interface is a double edge sword and every iteration of your development you need to review your user skill set and technology, which allows your passion of building application in tune with market and users, happy programming!!!
 
About Author:
Harsha Sarjapur is co-founder of InfoSourcing Inc, devoted to providing outsourcing solution to small and medium business. He is tech-savvy in the field of product and project management with a patent pending in search engine optimization for e-commerce websites.  He can be reached at Harsha@info-sourcing.com

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