Tech Life Simply nail the first impression

UI is Humble

Designing phenomenal UI is a thankless, unfair task which is full of contradictions.

Let’s go over the list of goals for good UI and notice how screwed our UI designers are.

Good UI should:

  • Be easy to learn, but powerful to use
  • Be pleasing to the eye, yet not annoying
  • Integrate with a user’s natural workflow, but also train them in new concepts or ideas

And that’s just the contradiction list. I haven’t even started to rant about how many times an UI designer has walked into my office with something totally amazing on paper, but utterly impractical to implement as it would take a team of engineers six months to implement. So, I say “No”. They get pissed and look for alternate means of sneaking the feature in. They try convincing the individual engineers who are happy to be asked, but give our designers the same stunned glare of “Are you insane?”

The cycle continues. Great ideas hammered into insignificance by those damned practical, conservative engineers. Tenacious UI designers keep pushing the engineering team and, in doing so, start to gain appreciation of the technical aspects of writing code and, oh shit, now they’ve totally betrayed their profession. They start to believe those engineering estimates because, well, yeah, it sure does look like it’d take six months to land my whiz-bang concept in the product… sigh… I’d best get back to organizing these text controls neatly.

No no no no no no no also no.

Take a moment to download the following product:

NewsFire 0.1

NewsFire is an RSS reader by a fellow named David Watanabe. David is apparently also responsible for the popular Acquisition application, but, more importantly, David is a Dunstan Orchard-like talent in terms of user interface design.

Done downloading? Good. Fire that sucker up and tell me what you think.

Your first thought is, “Whoa, no cool application icon? What’s this crap?” Get over it.

Your second thought might be, “Uh, Rands, this is pretty simple man. What’s the big deal?”

That’s right. It is simple. In fact, your first impression is that you could fire up Interface Builder and slap this together in a ten short minutes. You’re really quite wrong. Keep using the product. Add some feeds… read some articles… and you’ll start to appreciate the work that has gone into this application.

Little things like the opacity adjustment when the application moves to the background. It says, “Hi, reading feeds is something which is part of your desktop… not part of your dock.” Yeah, that’s right. Or how about the choice to lead with the headlines in the feed list as opposed to the title of the news source. That says, “The article is more important the source”. Hey, that’s right, too. Hadn’t thought of that, either. Spot on!

What makes this early version of NewsFire great is that it nails all of the delicate contradictions I explained above as well as satiating what I consider to be job #1 of great UI… Simply nail that first impression.

I haven’t a clue whether David Watanabe is an engineer turned UI designer or vice versa, but I do know that he’s not listening to that engineering voice in his head when he’s working. He’s thinking about the user and the domain… “How do people really want to read their news?”

With those requirements in mind, he’s build a simple, approachable product which is now resting comfortably in the bottom corner of my second monitor. It’s happy there and it belongs there because good UI is humble.. it’s working best when you notice it the least.

3 Responses

  1. leperjuice 12 years ago

    I had the good luck / misfortune to take a class taught by Jef Raskin (, the inventor of the Mac UI (and other features). One thing that I came to appreciate after reading his book “The Humane Interface” is the sorry state of modern UI, and how we’ve become accustomed to awkward or difficult to use interfaces because “Hey, that’s how it’s always been done”.

    Last night I had a discussion with a chemist friend of mine and I pointed out a simple UI optimization (why Mac’s have the menubar at the top of the screen vs on the individual windows a la MS Windows) and she was amazed as realized how the value of such a subtle change impacted her user experience. Yet precisely because we seek “familiarity” in our UI’s, we wind up in a vicious cycle whereby established, yet crappy, elements are maintained solely due to age, and novel and useful innovations are avoided in an attempt to be more user friendly. Ironic.

    Rather than focus on the warm-fuzzy-look-and-feel elements of UI design, Jef’s book discusses lower level, measurement-based heuristics for evaluating interfaces, and I must say that just by understanding his examples, I’ve become a better critic of design.

    My only caveat: I mentioned that I was misfortunate in taking the course. I say this because, though he didn’t mean it that way, his theory was much like Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”: lots of salient points which led to an unacceptable conclusion. If you want to see what I mean, download Jef’s “THE” (The Humane Environment) which is his conception of an ideal UI.

  2. leperjuice 12 years ago

    Obviously, this entry has not stimulated much discussion. However, for the record, I wanted to mention this one thing: though I can frequently be a design snob about many things (UI being only a small subject area) I readily recognize that design is *hard*.

    It’s easy to talk shit about design and to find flaws, but I know full well that were you to ask me to come up with a great user-interface/easy-chair/faucet I would fail miserably. And think most of us are that way. To paraphrase Potter Stewart, given bad design “I know it when I see it”. Asked to come up with guidelines to define it, however, and both of use draw a blank (he was talking about pornography, but I’m sure he’d agree).

    I think the real problem with good design, UI or otherwise, is that it requires a nearly superhuman sense of empathy. You have to be able to predict how people not like you will interact with your product, be it a word processing application or a door knob. And that’s hard to do. So while it’s easy to recognize bad design (and it’s all around us), it’s very difficult to design things well and we should recognize those around us (like David Watanabe) who make even a limited achivement in getting it right (go Rands).

  3. Dave has fabulous interface design–if only he weren’t such an asshole, he could be a great addition to the Mac developer community. Take a look at his “support forums” sometime. Instead of supporting his users he usually is just a jerk. Seems all the praise has gone to his head, so to speak.