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What’s in a UI?

Posted By David Marble, Monday, March 24, 2014
Updated: Friday, March 21, 2014
I would venture a guess that many of you who will read this next line will say, “Doesn’t everyone know this?” 

The User Interface (UI) can be one of the biggest barriers or strongest accelerators to technology adoption.

The answer is no, not everyone knows this—at least not at the deeper levels.   It turns out that the power of the UI is often misunderstood and underestimated by individual developers, engineering departments, marketing departments, and even entire companies.  Developers are not classroom teachers or doctors—in general, they are not in the professions of those who will use the application being developed.  Developers are also geeks who don’t struggle with technology—even if they do, it’s a challenge to be enjoyed.  They often make assumptions about what is “easy,” or “logical.”  Acting as referee in this dilemma is the Product Manager (PM), who role is to translate the needs of the teacher et al to the developer.  Unfortunately, it turns out that the PM is also not a teacher or a doctor and can make uninformed assumptions as well.

 The best companies recognize the disconnect between developers/Product Managers and their target markets and deal with the issue at a fundamental process and organization level by engaging those markets at every step of the development—but believe me, that doesn’t happen as often as you would expect. When technologies come into the market, they enter the 5-phase cycle that Gartner refers to as the “Hype Cycle.” In the early stages of this cycle, a product is developed and energetically marketed—meaning that it can easily become over-hyped, hitting what they refer to as the “Peak of Inflated Expectations”. The true test for any product begins in phase 3 of the cycle, known as the “Trough of Disillusionment,” when the product is used and scrutinized by the market. This is when any problems that arise with the practical use of a product in a real-world environment are brought to light.  When the ePortfolio technology market entered the “Trough," developers recognized a lag in the product’s induction into the classroom. This was a direct result of the fact that teachers didn’t fully grasp the ePortfolio UI, or understand the best way to use the product in their classrooms. It wasn’t until the teaching community was brought into the equation to provide input into important functionality and was able to adapt teaching methods to incorporate the technology that the market took off.

It is amazing how many times the product with the better UI beats the product with a better overall architecture and performance.  I am convinced that Google is the behemoth it is today because they had, and still have, the simplest UI in the search engine business.  They had only two buttons, one which says “I’m feeling Lucky,” and it has never changed.  They weren’t the first in the search engine market, and many would say that Lycos and Alta Vista had better engines, but there was something beautiful about the simplest UI.  Nicholas Negroponte, the famed founder of the MIT Media Lab and co-creator of Wired Magazine dedicated most of his work over the years in the pursuit and advocacy for better human to computer interfaces.  He lamented one day that he realized that the toilet he used in the morning knew that he had left and self-flushed but his desktop PC didn’t know that he was leaving unless he hit the keys and logged off.  He was always dismayed by the slow pace of voice command development. 

The impact of the UI can be felt everywhere.  Can you imagine how many more tapes would be in existence if the broader population had understood how to program the VCR?  Today, my wife still watches SD instead of HD because there is one less number to remember and button to push. …Okay, maybe that’s just my wife….

Tags:  broadband rhode island  eportfolio  gartner  hype cycle  technology adoption  UI  user interface  Wired Magazine 

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