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My secret passion

With the latest developments in the world of standards-based web design, I finally see an opportunity to spill my thoughts. I have this one passion few people know of. It’s interface design (and its bruvas, IA, UI and usability). Ajax is simply direct and refreshless fetching of data—preferably standards-based execution—and this makes for fully dynamic web applications. I admit that my PHP knowledge is meager and that I know only two lines of JavaScript, but web applications require a different approach of designing.

When designing (in lieu of a better word—if anyone can tell me what is, do so) an application, there is a lot to keep your eye on. Designing a web application requires a designer to dumb down like mad. Take these words from me (and correct me if I’m wrong, I’m still young) if you want, but they’ve proven true for me: when you want to design for a web application, make sure your concepts are as bare as possible. The only way to keep an interface for a web app work well (you gotta consider cross-browser stuff here, people) is to keep it very very very simple. Yes, I know, it might be old news for many of you, but for some reason I keep seeing mistakes.

Key obviously lies in the detail. An interface isn’t a design. Neither is an interface with details a design. An extensible detailed interface (xDI anyone?) however is what I aim for on any project. My most religious followers might have noticed that I have some design conventions going. One of the most glaring ones is my Fitts’s Law whoring. Ones with a good memory will recall my post on this, and I try to comfort myself by thinking that every single occurrence of a ‘bigger link’ in body type was made by a designer who read my post. That aside, I make big links. The current design shows that, Hanni’s design (which I made) as well (not on body content links, but that will be corrected in the new design that’s upcoming).

I like to have some design conventions, not only because it keeps your work signed and personalised, but also because you will perfect your methods, and if practice makes perfect, then conventions are the best practice you’ll get because you keep on using it, over and over and over again.

But to jump back to xDI (it works eh?), what I have in mind is a framework that has enough hooks for a skilled designer to make something pretty of it but will work well regardless of the design. This is of course the Walhalla of every interface designer, but I see it as a great means of making interfaces better, and I hope to get some designers to understand the importance of UI in the process. For now, the interfaces I design are also sweetened by my own graphics skills (this weblog’s layout (layout, not design) is basically a framework with the (lack of) sugar on top), but my goal is to have layouts that will work with and without the sugar, and will work well too. (The sugar should be an optional layer, because the detail in the interface should make it work pretty much just the same. Details are not to be underestimated.) Yes, it’s the ultimate goal, but practice makes perfect.

(I’d like to hear something from the 37signals guys, as they pull off an amazing job with Basecamp and Backpack. I guess that’s what people pay them for, but that matters not. 37signals has a tendency to pretty much rock my proverbial shorts.)

7 comments

  1. Perhaps the word you’re looking for is simply develop?

    I feel the sugar should be an optional layer as well, but mostly already is. Simply disabling images will demonstrate what happens with just the layout, in most cases. Perhaps I don’t get your message?

  2. So essentially, you’re telling us to dumb things down and to use Fitt’s Law?

  3. You’re kidding, right? An architect is a designer. They have to design the exterior, but also how it will be built, materials, think about things like earthquakes, et cetera.

    How is an interface designer any different? You have to maximize space, think about usability, and how cluttered it will look. Look at people like http://www.mennovanslooten.nl/ who recently posted about Creating webapplication layouts with CSS. The framework, structure and navigation has to be bang on.

    The problem with most applications is they have to present a LARGE amount of data, even before they have to worry about making it pretty. Thus, my though that yes, it is design.

    xDI - huh, that works. You’ve coined an acronym.

  4. Very true, but I am hesitant to call it dumbing down. The key to good interfaces is bridging the gap between the system model and the user model. You use affordances and metaphors to make that bridge and solid, quick and short as possible. Often, this does mean that keeping things simple and clear is the best option, but there are rare cases where the best matching interface for the intended audience isn’t as simple and clear as it could have been.

    It’s challenging to apply all of the fancy theory to the web though. And even though AJAX is exciting, I can only hope we’ll continue to classify AJAX as a detail (or the sugar), not a foundation for an interface.

  5. Jeroen, I’m not saying Ajax is the foundation, but thanks to this ‘new’ technology, web apps certainly get a new glance by companies and designers. It’s just an example of how interface is getting more important.

    Ryan, fact is that the average designer does not get that. Yes, a web designer should be able to do UI et al, but most out there aren’t.

    Stu, too bad.

    Jeff, you indeed don’t get my message. It’s not just layout. Yeah, they’re tightly bound, but that’s what I’m saying. It’s all a very snug fit, but that does not mean that they’re the same.

  6. I know and I wasn’t disagreeing with you at all. In fact, I agree, hence why I tried to use your terminology to say that ;-)

    AJAX definitely makes us aware of interface problems we never had to deal with on the web before.

    Luke Wroblewski’s latest article titled “AJAX and Interface Design” is a nice one: http://www.lukew.com/resources/articles/ajax_design.asp

  7. Too bad?

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