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Ideal Final Interface - What Should Have Come First, User Interface or Function?

| On 26, May 2009

Prakasan Kappoth

I was introduced by this book called “Design of Everyday Things” authored by Donald Norman by a friend of mine few years back. I was ignorant to the fact that there is such a great amount of work going on in the concept of User Iterface (UI) design until I read this book, and my further research on the UI arena has really enthralled me about the depth of thinking evolved during the last decade or so. After reading about the concept, I see there has been a subconcious change in my approach to use a product or service, and as a matter of fact, I started criticizing every UI I come across since then, and nothing satisfied me from the User Interface point of view yet. (including iPod).

I think many of us don’t pay enough attention to the User Interface of a product we use when the sole purpose of using a product/service is to achieve a function to complete my job. As long as the job gets done even with some difficulties, we as a user tend to compromise on the user interface part, with the exception that some UI’s are really ridiculous that people stop using the product itself. Perhaps this approach of giving importance to the functionality than UI slowly started creating a mental model about the perspective of a UI for us, and every other UI we come across incrementally added to the existing mental model of usage scenarios of functions than the UI. 

My background and experience as an IT professional helping people to design new software and products and as a customer of various software and hardware products enticed me this line of thinking, what should have come first, the User Interface or Functionality? Designing a new UI in the traditional approach involves understanding the functionality first, thinking about the end customer, their culture, habit, the customer base, and design a UI to cater the different type of such end customers. However, thinking backward from the user perspective, is there way to design an Ideal User Interface?

If you are an extensive MS Office user for the last 5 years, you can probably understand me and the reason about this lingering thought, what should have come first? Work with office 2003 Power point and the 2007 Power Point versions; note the differences in the UI. 2007 packed with more functionality, (and I’m happy with that), but the UI to achieve those common functions that were easy in 2003 became so complicated in 2007 version. Although the UI changes in the 2007 version perceived to be like (how the designer of this product perceived may be) they have simplified for the users, could they have designed the UI first for 2007 for adding more functionality?

I asked the same question to a colleague of mine working as a User Experience Lead, and her answer wasn’t surprising. We have always designed the UI for a function that exists. We created the function to satisfy our customer “jobs” and then designed a wrapper around that function to accept the input from them and provide output back, typically known as User Interface. Therefore the role of a UI designer then gets in to the level of making the UI attracting (make it flashy?), reducing the complexity of using it, making it simple to operate, and we are done. Further pushing with my agenda of “UI should come first,” my colleague really argued how is it possible to create a UI for a function that do not exist? Fair question, and frankly I didn’t have an answer to back up my thinking. It’s like creating a roof first for a house before the foundation and the wall.

Ok, if we can’t create the UI first for the functionality that does not exist, can we do it other way around, create a function from the UI that I’m working on? To make this possible, can we think about the Ideal user interface? Since every user interface is to achieve some function, can there be an ideal user interface to create an ideal function?

Ideality is a concept within the systematic innovation framework to break the incremental approach in thinking and looking at the ideal scenario we would like to achieve. In other way, ideality is the results of function achieved without any cost or harm. If we can apply this technique for our UI should come first issue, we could ask

What is my Ideal Final User Interface? 

An ideal user interface for me as a customer for any product could be that there is no UI. This may sound hypothetical, but the notion here is to bring an idealistic thinking for the functionality.

I would be happy to have my PowerPoint 2007 without any UI at all, but provide me things as and when I needed to do something. For example, if I want to insert a picture in a slide, all that I need is an insert option (only when I need that) where PowerPoint can point me to the place I will load the image from, and more ideally, automatically bringing the best and suitable image for that slide, insert it, change the orientation etc . Well, now I’m talking to a very intelligent Power Point application by Microsoft, because if it to make my ideal UI a reality, a very new intelligent function should be created. By asking the question “what is stopping Microsoft to provide me an intelligent Power Point feature,” I may be pushing the ball to the technical guy’s court!

Well, ideality does not really exist, so do the intelligent functionality today in the Power Point. Now, if the ideal ideal UI (no UI at all) is not possible, what could be the next IFI (Ideal Final Interface)? Drawing the same Power Point insert example, the next IFI for me should be the insert option UI is so convenient to me that clicking on it would give me a thumbnail view of all “preferred” images, preferably giving me some ratings, also identifying the size, automatically converting them to fit in to my slides etc. Wouldn’t that be possible?

The concept of an IFI is more than just for designing the best UI, but also creating a better functionality for the product and overall changing the experience of getting my “job” done as a customer. Now do you agree that UI can come first, what are your thoughts?