I know a lot of developers aren’t great with UI design, or “making it look pretty” as some will call it, but too often it seems that making necessary improvements to the interface of an application or site is the subject of procrastination — “we’ll get to it when we have time” — and then time never arrives, as many other things are considered more important. Even when a company has a full-time designer, it seems that the designer often has the struggle of selling people on their cause before they can get significant changes made, because developers often feel it isn’t important to make the requested changes if the site already works, although the user’s experience may be suboptimal.
I have seen this many times, and often it is even further shadowed by the fact that the product or site is popular with its customers, or that people have used it for a long time, so it must be fine, right? Wrong. Just because people are buying or using your product doesn’t mean there aren’t problems with it, or that it doesn’t need improvement. And you can’t always rely on the customer to tell you what they want to see in terms of UI, because they often don’t know — they just want it to work with the least amount of effort necessary.
This is the concept that is important to keep in mind when developing the application as well, as many complex applications have complex UIs that are completely necessary. It is often assumed that flexibility requires complexity, but there are many good examples that this is not the case. A good working example would be the file search feature in Apple’s Mac OS X Finder.
Rather than bombarding the user with every possible option, they are initially presented with a simple search field, present at the corner of every file window. Typing in that field will initiate a quick search for files that match the entered text, and the toolbar shows just a couple of options, allowing the user to specify if they want to search the entire computer or just their folder, and if they want to show all files that contain the text, or just ones whose names match. Clicking the plus sign to the right offers an additional row, allowing the user to further refine the search by selecting a property and a condition (i.e. “Kind” is “PDF” or “Name” “begins with” “Agreement”). The user can then continue adding these filters to obtain as much detail as they need. While the display can become cluttered with several of these filter bars, it is not as confusing or overwhelming as the countless and little used search boxes may be on some “advanced” searching interfaces, where the user must look through a wide array of fields to determine which fields require input to filter results.
It is this mindset of keeping UI elements simple and relevant to the user that is necessary for sites and applications to thrive. If your interface is clean, simple and functional, not only will users buy your product or service and continue to use it, but they will actually enjoy using it and be more likely to offer positive recommendations to others because they enjoy it.