The way a person interacts with a computer, tablet, smartphone or other electronic device. The user interface (UI) comprises the screen menus and icons, keyboard shortcuts, mouse and gesture movements, command language and online help, as well as physical buttons, dials and levers. Also included are the physical components, such as the mouse, keyboard, touchscreen, remote and game controllers.
The Bar Was Set Low
The user interface is the most important, yet least-understood area in the computer industry. Every application has only a handful of basic functions that users need all the time, yet they are often buried in arcane submenus that must be memorized. Worse yet, once bad examples are set by major vendors, others follow like sheep. Since popular applications are often hard to learn, users have come to expect that using software has to be difficult, when in fact, it could be downright simple if educated designers were involved. One shining light is the smartphone. Its small screen tends to force designers to think about usability more than ever, but sadly not all do (see good user interface
Users Are Reluctant to Change
Because of the steep learning curves people have to endure, many are disinclined to change applications. While the software industry constantly touts "productivity gains" for every new product, the lost hours figuring out how to do something, combined with the gun-shy reluctance to actually try a different product that might really be an improvement often impede productivity.
Ask and Ye Shall Receive
Voice and natural language input and verbal output are increasingly standard components of the user interface, and they can be an enormous help. However, recognizing human speech and delivering the proper action is a daunting computational task. Sometimes the results people get are fraught with errors and downright laughable. Nevertheless, improvements are expected every year in this arena (see virtual assistant
). See RTFM
, user experience
, naming fiascos
, Freedman's law
, flat design
, Web rage
It Can Change World History
Nothing highlights the importance of a user interface better than the 2000 U.S. presidential election when the Florida recount kept the country in limbo for weeks. The confusing punch card ballot used in Palm Beach County caused thousands of voters to vote for Buchanan (red arrow) rather than Al Gore.
Give Us A Break!
Our dazzling HDTVs do not prevent dopey button naming. This family's salvation was to attach labels on their remote control to clarify the buttons.
Read the Manual (RTFM)
Was there a contest for how ridiculous one could name the folders (on the right) in this camera's memory card? Something wrong with Still, Movie, Audio, and Email?
Keep the Elevator Door Open
The big red button that catches your eye in this building elevator is for an exceedingly rare emergency. Wouldn't "Big Red" be better as a "Door Open" button? People always scramble to stop the door from closing on someone.
A Century of Experience Didn't Help
With a combined 99 years of audio experience, Alan Freedman, author of this encyclopedia (right) and his colleague Pete Hermsen, who built a radio at age eight, struggled in vain to balance the speakers on Freedman's new receiver. The manual was worthless (see RTFM
After changing a password on a website, this user-friendly message appeared. Translated: "we don't have a clue how our software got you here!"
It Was 2013. Or Was It?
Billions spent on development over decades, and users still get obtuse Windows messages in the 21st century. However, now and then, Microsoft has led the pack with really superior designs (see good user interface
I Thought My Phone Was a Note II
OK, once in a while you need the model number, but why not identify the device by its common name too?
This popped up on an old Android phone. Why didn't it just say 4,741 days and 16 hours and make it easy to update our calendar!!!
Da Fup What??
How about this popping up on your Android phone. Doesn't every user know this means a Device Association Framework Universal Plug and Play provider is trying to connect? Of course. See Device Association Framework
OK. Bad Formula. But Where?
This spreadsheet opens with an error message. Although it explains the category of problem, it never states which cells are in error, and there could be hundreds of formulas in a spreadsheet. In other words "we know where you goofed but we're not gonna tell ya." This kind of error treatment is par for the course in this industry.
Even Worse for the Technician
The primary menus for these integrated developer environments (IDEs), which programmers use to write, compile and debug applications, are all different. In this example, the File, Edit, Windows and Help menus (the same on almost all software) were stripped out to highlight the differences. Developers switching platforms have to learn the software all over again.
Remotes Are No Exception
Remote control interfaces are all over the place, and the volume and channel buttons can be anywhere (red arrows point to Volume Up).
Not a high-tech example... just priceless. These "informative" instructions were on a popular charcoal grill sold in 2015.