The User Interface — It’s Not Business, It’s Personal

If you’re a movie fan, you’re well aware of the ongoing conflict often portrayed between humans and machines in a dystopian future. Think “West World,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Terminator,” “I, Robot” and “The Matrix.”

I can’t help but wonder if these movies are so popular because they reflect our own personal experiences of the technologies that we work with every day. If our current technology can passively cause us so much pain and frustration, what would happen if these machines awoke and actively worked against us?

Most of us have had a difficult experience with technology. Many times, it may be in basic working order, yet the actions required to achieve the desired results are foreign to us. This dilemma arises because many times these systems are designed by engineers for engineers.

“Engineers are trained to think logically. As a result, they come to believe that all people must think this way, and they design their machines accordingly.”  – Don Norman, “The Design of Everyday Things”

Technology designed from a technologist’s perspective will always be problematic. It is not a destination, but rather a vehicle that helps get the user to their desired destination. Imagine a car designed without the driver at the center of the design process. Technology design for the workplace is no different. Without placing the users of the system at the center of the design process, the system may turn out to be elegant but useless at the same time.

It’s All About Discovery

We should be putting the user at the center of the technology design process, using a human-centered design approach. This means starting with a blank slate, honoring existing work habits and patterns and creating user interfaces that have a high degree of discoverability.

I’ve said for years that the most important tool I bring to every meeting is a clean sheet of paper. I selectively “forget” all the systems I’ve designed for clients in the past and approach each project with a totally fresh perspective. Companies may have similar businesses, but they often face completely different problems, so proactively designing technology solutions before hearing their business problems is a sure recipe for failure.

The discovery process is one of the most crucial steps for success. Getting as much access as possible to the people who will use the systems day in and day out is crucial not only to the initial design process, but to the long-term adoption of the technology as well.

Coping with Inertia

It’s also important to be aware of the inertia within an organization. Existing work habits and workflows should be honored and thought about carefully. Many times technologists assume that people will change the way they work to realize the promise of technology, but that is not usually the case. If someone typically enters a conference room, flips on the lights and then sets their phone on the table, then we should be looking at how we can use those existing behaviors. I.e., can we turn on the technology with that same switch and sync content to the displays when the phone is set down on the table?


Arthur Clarke is famous for saying, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”


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Building on that statement, technology should be as invisible as possible and cause as little deviation from the current workflow as possible. It is much easier to leverage existing habits and prejudices than it is to build new ones.

To accommodate this inertia, interviews with users are a great starting point, but observation is an even better tool. Most people have difficulty identifying what they like and what they don’t, then have trouble articulating exactly why. They have even more trouble predicting future preferences. Even if they didn’t, people are not logical machines, meaning that their actions are often predictably irrational. Observation will give a much better idea of where technology may add efficiency and value.

Usability: Make or Break Factor

Once the information gathered starts to give form to the technology design, usability now must be the primary focus. This means that the operation of the system must not only be simple, but also intuitive and discoverable.

I’ve used this example may times before, so bear with me if you’ve heard it. Take a look at the toy pictured below.

Each box requires a different action to open it, yet each action is infinitely discoverable, even by an infant. This kind of ease of use should be our goal in technology design. The best approach is to afford some time for UI “play testing” and to budget the project allowing for adjustments based on those results. It may add a little cost up front, but it can make a huge difference in the long-term system ROI based on regained productivity and technology adoption by users.

At the end of the day, good technology design does not create conflict between humans and machines. Delivering systems that are relevant to the company, leverage users’ habits and experience and are intuitively user-friendly is much easier when you put the person and not the technology at the center of the design process.

It’s not business, it’s personal.