Why is Great UI so hard to achieve?

Filling up my car with fuel this morning, I'm suddenly hit in the face with more evidence that the vast majority of user interfaces fail to satisfy those three important elements of great UI, clarity, efficiency, and discoverability.

One of the common mistakes you see in the physical world are buttons on a single device designed as if they will all be pressed with the same frequency. You can tell this because the buttons are all the same size, and in some cases the buttons you have to hit most frequently are two small and located in places that require more thought and more precision to hit than they should.

Speaking of buttons and precision, here's part of the interface I was looking at:


On the left you have the button from a fuel pump that selects the most popular grade of gasoline in the United States. On the right sits the button for the less popular, more expensive grade of petrol. The erosion on the left is like a chart showing both frequency of hits as well as signaling where people wanted to hit the button. It is clear that humans who interacted with the button on the left wanted to work with a button far larger than the designed "Push Here" area afforded.

Here's a redesign of this interface, keeping with the essence of the original:


Here are the changes (we'll explain the rationale behind these changes in future posts):

  • "GRADE SELECT" converted to the less-noisy "Grade Select".
  • The unnecessary underline below "Grade Select" has been removed.
  • The redundant "Grade Select" text has been removed.
  • The tabs holding the "Grade Select" text have been removed.
  • Button area increased and low-contrast border added.
  • Contrast of the "Push Here" labels has been lowered.
  • Contrast between the Regular and Plus text, and their backgrounds has been increased.

So, while there is plenty of evidence that some buttons are pressed more than others, there isn't much evidence that designers actually understand that.

One of my favorite large buttons is the space bar on a modern keyboard. Of course that originates from an ancient machine known as the typewriter. Unfortunately, the QWERTY layout that dominates today takes a step far, far away from efficiency by unbelievably moving frequently-accessed keys into harder to reach spots, reportedly because early adopters of typewriters with pre-QWERTY layouts were so proficient they would frequently jam the typebars of the machine together. I can't tell you how much I would like to be in on that meeting back in 1874 when they decided to move the keys around so they were actually harder to hit. That one decision had to be one of the most expensive user interface mistakes ever made, in terms of lost productivity multiplied over time. That space bar likely survived only because hitting it simply advanced the paper one character to the left -- and did not increase the risk of typebars getting wedged together.

But it did survive and it's big and easy to hit with either thumb, so I like it. :-)

You need to get to that cross walk over there in the distance on the right. Which path do you take?


On the left, the designers' intention is highlighted in red. On the right, the more efficient path is outlined in blue:


There is evidence humans prefer efficiency to flat hard ground.

You're watching TV. You need to change the channel, and you need to change the volume.

Which remote control would you rather hold in your hand?


Which remote would you rather adjust volume on?


On the white remote control on the right, the channel-changing buttons on top are far away from the volume-changing buttons at the lower-right.


Also, these horizontal and vertical orientations are inconsistent and require some mental training before it feels natural. And the visual weight (shape, size, contrast) of these buttons is identical to nearly all the other buttons on the control, including the rarely-pressed buttons labeled Language and Clock.

You're inside an elevator in the N-terminal at Seatac airport. You need to get on your plane. There are three buttons to select your destination:

  • RAMP (*R)


Which button do you press? That RAMP button with the star next to it looks mighty appealing. After all, I must walk down a ramp to get onto my plane. And haven't I seen stars on elevator buttons used to indicate the main floor or lobby? And what's a concourse, anyway? I need to get to my gate, and it's in a terminal.

Here's a wider picture of that elevator control panel:


Apparently there was sufficient ambiguity between the RAMP level (some obscure mid-level where passengers apparently do not want to be) and the CONCOURSE level (where you can board your plane) to justify the addition of the hardware-equivalent of software's floating tool tips. Of course, these tool tips are completely invisible to blind folks who are likely to all be congregating on that floor marked with the star R on it.

So, there is evidence that designers of hardware (and certainly software) are not paying attention to important matters.

Now back to the original question -- why is great UI so hard to achieve? While a number of factors impact the ultimate outcome, I would suggest the most important influencer is training. It seems that most developers and designers creating interfaces for human consumption simply lack a small bit of knowledge that could make a huge difference.

How big of a difference? Well, for starters, let's go back to the gas station where I bought fuel this morning. Swiping my credit card, I'm presented with a message on screen, that looks like this:

Is this a debit card?

Of course I am unable to proceed until the question is answered. I happen to be using a credit card, not a debit card, so I know the answer is no. However it is not immediately clear how I'm supposed to communicate this status to the machine.

So next I move my gaze down to scan the keypad. After reading labels on a half-dozen buttons, I find the buttons labeled Yes and No at the bottom-right of the keypad (much farther away from the message than they need to be). I should point out that the question (e.g., "debit card?") changes from station to station -- sometimes the machine wants to know if I'm using a credit card, and sometimes the machine asks me to find buttons labeled Credit and Debit and then press the right one. Remembering that the question this time was asking if I was using a debit card, I click the No button, and return my gaze to the screen above, to see if I am now permitted to put fuel in my vehicle.

All told, this sucks up about ten seconds of life each time I use my card. And not only at gas stations, but grocery stores and many other places of business. Every time I try to give my money to the merchants, they just try to slow me down. This is not in their best interest, nor is it in mine.

Poorly-designed UI acts as a frictional force against the economy. How much does it cost? Well, let's start multiplying those ten seconds out across all the millions of transactions occurring every day across all of these machines, and you have a picture of an amazing amount of time wasted. Multiply that time by average salary of those affected and you have a way to estimate the cost of this design choice.

But why ask the debit card question in the first place? Personally, I never carry any debit cards. For me, the answer will always be the same. Well, it would always be the same if the questions were always the same. And surely we live in a world where technology can identify on some end (the gas station, the bank, etc) which way my card swings.

So, bad UI surrounds and the reason for this failure may simply be lack of training. And I'm betting when you first saw the question you were thinking it was something else. :-)

The test for this assertion is simple. Follow the series, get the training, and watch how dramatically that improves your ability to design great interfaces.

In the next post, we'll dive into clarity.

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Awesome post Mark, very thought-provoking.. thank you.

10 February 2009

Interesting post Mark.  I have come up with some additional thoughts.

1) You should select Hi-test because the button will have the least amount of wear and tear and will be easy to read and because you are driving a Ferrari.

2) You don't need to get to the crosswalk because you are driving a Ferrari.

3) You buy the ultra-expensive touch screen Harmony remote and create the specific interface you like because you can afford it and because you are driving a Ferrari.

4) You don't need to take the elevator to the train because you are driving a Ferrari.

I didn't realize how much impact driving a Ferrari can have on user interfaces...amazing.

10 February 2009
Christopher Steen

Podcasts Hanselman List of Podcasts for .NET Programmers [Via: Scott Hanselman ] Code Camps Pittsburgh...

11 February 2009
Christopher Steen

Link Listing - February 10, 2009

11 February 2009

Your card terminals really ask you stupid questions like that??

I was under the impression that the first 4 or 5 digits of a card number uniquely identify at least the type of card if not also the issuing bank. We certainly don't have to jump through those sort of hoops in the UK.

11 February 2009

A must-read concerning the design of user interfaces is "The Humane Interface: New Directions for Designing Interactive Systems" by Jef Raskin


11 February 2009
Dew Drop - February 11, 2009 | Alvin Ashcraft's Morning Dew

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11 February 2009
triumphs of bad design « garann means business

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11 February 2009

This is a great article, thoroughly enjoyed reading. Gave me lots to think about and possibly lots of areas of improvement to consider. Thanks!

11 February 2009
Mark Miller

Let's create a 3x4 table in word.... And let's fill the table with data.... Now, at this point

11 February 2009
Why is Great UI so hard to achieve? - Mark Miller | creditcancelation.com

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12 February 2009

Great article.  I was thinking today to write a blog about the use of iPhone apps.  Have you noticed how nice they are compared to web pages?  I think there's something to the fact that they are single purpose and also allow for a great UI.  I find myself reaching for my iPhone more and more rather than a website on my desktop - even if I am sitting in front of my desktop.

Regarding book suggestions, the gold standard must be mentioned, The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A Norman: www.amazon.com/.../ref=pd_bbs_sr_1

12 February 2009
Joe Ganley

That debit card business drives me crazy too. I don't even think my credit cards can act as debit cards, and even if they could I don't EVER want them to. Yet I have to answer that (almost always poorly worded) question every time.

Also, the crosswalk-path example reminds me of a story from my alma mater, Virginia Tech, which may or may not be true but is a good story regardless. Central to the campus is a large oval drillfield, with mostly class buildings on one side and dorms on the other. The story goes that when they built it, they just laid sod over the whole field with no paths. After a while, they saw where the grass had been worn away by people's chosen paths across the grass, and paved over those paths.

13 February 2009

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13 February 2009
Great Windows(R) User Interface (UI) and Presentation Layer — An Online Training Series by DevExpress | Tech Jobs Los Angeles

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13 February 2009
Great Windows(R) User Interface (UI) and Presentation Layer — An Online Training Series by DevExpress | ITeego??? IT Search Specialists - Tech Recruiter, Los Angeles

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13 February 2009
Great Windows(R) User Interface (UI) and Presentation Layer — An Online Training Series by DevExpress | Technical Recruiter Los Angeles

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13 February 2009

Did you consider changing the text color of "Regular" and "Plus" to enhance the visual clues?  

16 February 2009
Mark Miller (DevExpress)
Mark Miller (DevExpress)

Hi Eric,

I did consider changing the text color of both "Regular" and "Plus" to the *same* color, because there is evidence to support the idea that fewer colors conveys information better than more colors (we'll discuss this in a later post). However I wanted remain relatively consistent with the colors of the original design.

16 February 2009
Mark Miller

In the last post , we talked about the elements of design we can adjust to match information relevance

17 February 2009

Just some more sample of BAD UI's...


20 February 2009
AJAX Developer » Blog Archive » Great Windows?? User Interface (UI) and Presentation Layer ??? An Online Training Series by DevExpress

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27 May 2009

You should get together with David Platt: "Why software sucks"


23 March 2010

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