Strong opinions, weakly held

Universal design

In yesterday’s post about URL literacy a little debate broke out in the comments about whether it’s worth it to add usability features for novices if they make life more difficult for experts. On that note, last month’s Dwell had an article on universal design, a school which argues that designers should be trying to create designs that work for everyone, regardless of their level of experience or capabilities. This is the position I was arguing in the comments, and is an approach I’m fond of. I generally reject the notion that experts and novices require wildly different interfaces or devices, although obviously there are outliers in any group whose tastes may differ.


  1. I don’t think it’s possible to create a design that works for everyone, though it’s certainly better, if there is only one choice as a developer, to design for the 90% rather than the 10%.

    For instance, for those who use keyboard shortcuts extensively, all the extraneous buttons and other non-keyboard accouterments to the UI just get in the way and waste screen real estate.

    Another example is the Microsoft Office ribbon. Though most people love it, it’s widely-hated by expert users of Microsoft Office — and not just, I’d posit, because they already know how to use the older editions of Office. (For instance, I hardly use Office, and I despise the ribbon, as it takes me 15 minutes to find what I could find in Office 2003 in a few seconds.)

    I realize I’m in the 10% and pretty atypical, but when valuable menus get taken away, or UI features added that just get in my way that are intended for novice users, it’s a real hassle to find the DLL hack to fix it, or compile it myself with the problems corrected.

    But all in all, as far as developer times goes, it’s better to design for the majority of your users. Of course, that also gets into the question that then, you tend to alienate the most important users — the early adopters and tech-aware who then go tell everyone else how great your product is. Lose those users (as Firefox is doing), and you lose the rest eventually.

    Well, I could ramble on, but no one needs a list of examples of software with now-ruined interfaces. Firefox is one of them — but luckily, it’s fixable with a little time and hacking away.

  2. From a consumer standpoint, you are all missing the point. A novice interface on a expert product does not make it easy to use.

    At the end of the day, the goals of a novice user are far far different than the goals of an expert. It’s the underlying app, not the UI that determines whether it’s a novice app or an expert app. We in the computer industry criminally inflict expert programs on consumers and naviely(sp) expect a novie interface to make it easy-to-use. And we aggrevate the problem by choosing erronous names for the product. Photoshop being a prime example/poster child for this. It’s not a novice application nor is it intended to help anyone do simple things to photos. It’s a graphic artists tool, not a photo tool. Confused by the name uh? When you attended any Nikon’s photo school they quickly steer you to real photo editing tools, and away from Photoshop. Try Office Picture Manager to crop/de-redeye/improve a photo vs getting a novice to try to do the same things in Photoshop. It’s minutes vs hours (and the UI isn’t the issue – which is my point).

    At the extreme, someone could interpret what your are saying as this: an elegant novice user interface for a programing language would of course allow the novice user – say my grandmother – to create an app (obviously customized just for them) to do exactly what they want in an app in no time. BTW: she wants a bridge game app.

    What I really think you are saying it that the UI/UE has to provide for the first time / causual user in the interface design as well as for the folks who use the app daily. Remember words create worlds. So shift from novice/expert to new/casual & the daily user. It will make a difference in how you approach the design. When’s the last time you thought thru making it easy for a returning user after 6 months time to immediately pick up and start using Photoshop or Pinnacle Studio for the 2nd or 3rd time??? And what did you do with the UI/UE to facilitate this return? I hope you have thought these thru. Have you in fact done so? Please surprise me with a ‘yes’ answer!

    “Barry James”

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