User Interfaces: Simple, powerful, or both?

Last night I went to the UX bookclub, Glasgow, with a bunch of people from Geeksoc. We used the book “The Design of Everyday things”, by , and we discussed a whole number of things (sometimes going very off topic) from the iphone user interface to having different coloured links for visited links.

One of the things we discussed was about how simple user interfaces should be. For example, not having a filesystem that you can browse on the iphone. Or having a simple browser-only interface like ChromeOS. The discussion led to me thinking a lot about how user interfaces should be. Bad examples of user interfaces, and how we could fall into a dangerous trap when trying to be simple.

I think the big problem is when someone tries to get a simple interface, they sometimes miss out a lot of features, or a lot of power that could be within the application/os. But also vice versa. Let’s take some examples.

I will assume that most people reading my blog will have heard of compiz. It is the beast of 3d window managers for linux. But the problem is that you can have either no changes in your config, or you get the monster that is CCSM. For those who haven’t seen ccsm, I’ve put a wee screenshot of it here.

Now, I use this all the time for configuring my compiz, and I have learnt where everything is. I have learnt that if you want to use the cube, you disable “desktop wall”, enable “desktop cube” and “rotate cube,” and then make sure you have 4 desktops by changing the “desktop size” which is in “general settings”. Then you need to go into “rotate cube” and make sure the zoom setting is turned up to about 0.1, so you actually see the cube when it goes around.

Phew…that was a lot of work just to get the cube working. And if you don’t know how to do they, that is insane. The first thing to change in this would be to have a generic Desktop section where you can enable or disable the cube, decide if it is a cube, cylinder or sphere, and then enable or disable the desktop wall etc…

But of course, there are loads of settings in here that people don’t need to know. Have you ever looked in the “Animations” plugin? You can change absolutely everything about each animation. There is so much you can do, so much that even I don’t touch (and I spend a lot of time customising my compiz settings). So, ccsm should have possibly a simple and an advanced version. But apart from that, this for the advanced version would still be too complicated.

I know it is very common to bash the iPhone. It is quite often the most popular thing that people bash (windows, iphone, etc…). However, I am going to explain why the iPhone is good (shock horror) and bad. Now, we know that the iPhone is absolutely the epitome of user experience. Now, I don’t like the iPhone, but lets be honest, even I cannot pretend that it isn’t very userfriendly.

The problem is, however, that the iPhone has sacrificed power, and configurability to get this simple user experience. There are so many things on the iPhone you cannot do. And it is always going to be a hard thing getting the right balance of usability and power, that not everyone is ever going to be happy.

I think the main things about User Experience that we should take away and use in designs is that things should be simple. Users should not know what a filesystem is. And, lets be honest, users shouldn’t really even have to use “.exe”s or anything. Computers should just do what they want. However, you cannot then sacrifice power and useful things. For example, I still want a decent filesystem on a phone, even though another user should never have to know what it is. I want to browse even the system files and everything on my phone. And there are people like me. But you should only encounter stuff like that if you know what they are or want to learn about them. Not if you don’t want to. You shouldn’t have to deal with it.