With Ubuntu Unity having its first anniversary recently and Windows 8 on the brink of release, it's becoming quite clear that not all user interfaces are created equal. In fact, it is possible to have a brilliant design that could revolutionize the way computers are used — but if that design doesn't take into account the end users, that design will fail before it has a chance to prove its brilliance.
After years of using nearly every Linux desktop and each Windows desktop, hearing the broad spectrum of complaints, and speaking to both designers and end users, I believe I have a solid handle on what UI designers need to know about end users to create fantastic, user-friendly interfaces that can easily avoid the adoption hurdle. Note: This all applies to the AVERAGE end user.
1: End users do not like change
This is a most unfortunate reality with end users. Change is something that does nothing but keep them from getting their work done. The truth is, most end users live in a constant state of fear that they are going to break their computers or that if something changes, they'll never figure out how to do what it is they need to do. This means that any drastic change you make in the UI is going to cause backlash from users. Does that mean you can't change your design? No. It just means it must be done with care.
2: End users do not typically use keyboard shortcuts
I live and die by keyboard shortcuts. Most power users I know do as well. In fact, I do everything I can to not move my hand away from the keyboard (unless working with graphics). But end users are not built that way. They like the mouse and will always like the mouse — until they are forced to use nothing but a touch screen. To that end, user interfaces should not be created that rely on keyboard shortcuts. Yes, it's good (and encouraged) to include them, but don't design your UI so that keyboard shortcuts must be used.
3: End users separate their mobile platforms from the desktop platforms
Unless you're Apple, you must understand this. Users separate their mobile interfaces from the desktop interfaces and do not expect them to be one and the same. It's clear that Apple is working its way toward making the IOS and the OSX interfaces the same. That's fine. Users have been dealing with the IOS interface for years. That translates into user familiarity. The Windows 7 mobile interface? Not only is it one of the least used interfaces, it's also one of the least mature interfaces. Users are not familiar enough with Windows 7 Mobile to all of a sudden have it become the UI for their desktops.
4: End users do not think like developers
This one is a challenge for developers. It's hard to think without the use of your own personal filters, which makes it difficult to put on the cap of a different level of user. It should be obvious that end users do not think like developers. They simply don't have the skill sets or the fundamental understanding of how computers and their interfaces work. What does that mean in the end? Keep it simple and keep it focused somewhere between the lowest and middle common denominator.
5: End users want their apps easy to access
This is simple: End users want launchers. This can mean icons, quick start launchers, start menu buttons, or panel launchers. In whatever form, users must have near-immediate access to their applications. I have noticed (when trying to support end users) that even having them navigate through a start menu, they quickly become confused. To those of us in this industry, the idea of Start | All Programs | Mozilla | Firefox is second nature. We navigate menus all day. To the end user, this can quickly become a complex maze of confusion.
6: End users adhere to "If it ain't broke..."
I can't tell you how many times I have heard this very statement from end users having to experience a new interface for the first time. They don't get the idea of evolving the interface. To them, everything on the PC is a separate entity and the idea that a program must make user of widgets and elements already in place is absolutely foreign. Only those in the know understand that when the foundation of a program evolves, so too must the program evolve.
7: End users needs slow, steady acclimation
Apple is doing this perfectly. Slowly but surely it is adapting its users to its design scheme. Eventually, OSX and IOS will be one and the same and the users will hardly notice the change. If you want to make a grand sweeping change, do it gradually and you won't have users losing their marbles.
8: End users do not practice safe computing like you'd want them to
To the end user, the computer is a vast playground where anything can be installed and everything is safe. We all know that is a fallacy and one that could land the end user in deep water with the IT department. You can't count on companies having policies that prevent end users from doing anything and everything they desire, so maybe it's time for designers to understand that end users aren't always to be trusted and that fact should be reflected in the design of the UI.
9: End users don't care about eye candy
I'll confess I love me some eye candy. I always have. I am part graphic designer, so it's in my blood to want things to look nice and have a bit of added eye candy value. The average user? Not so much. In fact, the average user wouldn't care if the interface still looked like Windows 95 — so long as it was easy to use.
10: End users do have a valid opinion on how your interface should be designed
Let's face it: User interfaces are meant for end users. In a perfect world everyone would have the same level of knowledge and designers could design the most lovely, complicated interfaces they wanted. But the truth of the matter is, end users are the target and their opinions should be of high value to the designer. I know many desktop interfaces (such as KDE and GNOME) have design summits, where designers and developers meet to work together to design the most viable interfaces possible. Those summits should have numerous end users in attendance to help guide the designers down the perfect path.
UI designers face a hefty challenge. Not only are they charged with designing elements that work well for the program (or platform), they must do so while not making things too complicated or abstract for the end user. Ubuntu has faced this challenge over the last year and Microsoft is about to see just what Canonical went through. I hope Microsoft listened well to end users' opinions during the final phases of the design. Users are an important group that designers must pay attention to — or else their designs fail.
Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.