User Experience Revisited

I started a new job this week, working at HBO. After nearly 13 years at a software company, it’s invigorating to be at a content company. The challenges are completely different. The acronyms are new. The focus is on user experience.

One of my favorite books is a collection of essays by Joel Spolsky called User Interface Design for Programmers. Although some of the examples are dated, the key concepts are still relevant.

In preparation for some work my team will be doing on UI, I’ve been reading the online version of Joel’s book. I was struck by his axiom of all UI design: A user interface is well-designed when the program behaves exactly how the user thought it would.

It reminded me of my personal pet peeve of UI design — keyboard entry. I avoid the mouse whenever I can, because (like many software engineers) I’m more efficient when my hands stay on the keyboard. Now consider most websites. They’re often designed for the mouse as the primary form of input, even for things that require the keyboard, such as user names or address forms.

When you go to a banking or credit card site, what’s the first thing you do? You enter your user name. Yet how many sites default the keyboard focus to the user name field? The number is far short of 100%.

Takeaway: when you’re designing UI, consider all your users, and behave the way the user expects.

The challenge with Joel’s axiom of UI design is that all your users are different. One good solution that I learned at Microsoft: create a small suite of user profiles and test against those profiles. For example, you might have a profile that describes a student user, a pro user, and a business user.

And if you’re developing a new website, set the initial keyboard focus to the user name field.

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