Interface design is at the heart of emerging product designs. As we travel into the 21st century consumers expect more from their products so designers need to make products smarter. The portion of the first century all interfaces were mechanical in nature. Press a button, pull a lever and the gears will turn. Then came the phenomenon of electricity which allowed switches and clever circuitry and then we delved into the age of computers which used machine and programmable code to drive interfaces. With this great leap we changed interfaces from being physical to digital, that is, interfaces were on screens and they were clickable and touchable. This is where Interactive Design – An Introduction to the Theory and Application of User-Centered Design by Andy Pratt and Jason Nunes and published by Rockport takes off. The book understands that interaction design is the most pivotal aspect of a product. Screens are all around us from phones to ATM’s to appliances.
Interactive Design explores the design concept of ‘User-centered Design’ which can assist graphic or industrial designers understand users and use logic and best practices to make customers rave about your products. One just has to look at the tablet wars to appreciate the importance interface design has on product differentiation. Take for instance the new Ipad (Ipad 3) vs Google Nexus tablet (or Samsung Galaxy Tab). Aesthetically from the outside the products are just a simple black rectangle, however the interface is the heart of the advice and the reason people are drawn into Apple devices more than not in 2012. The Apple ecosystem and application is the differentiator not the physical design or technical specifications. Interactive Design goes through this process in 14 comprehensible chapters which include:
1. What is User-Centered Design Why Do We Need It? This chapter talks about the principles of user-centered design like the online movement ‘principle 6, affordances (which is like the debugging process) and mental and conceptual models.
2. Collaborating with Your Team and Your Client Like any design project interface driven or not you need to work as a team with your clients and your internal design team. This chapter uses case studies to exemplify projects where client collaboration facilitated the project’s success.
3. Goals, Users, and Success Criteria We all know the importance of goal setting, but this chapter goes further and talks about priorities. We only have a set amount of real estate to work with, and consumers only have so much they comprehend and specifying priorities is absolutely pivotal to successful interface design. It also emphasises the importance of setting goals and a scope of your interface, that is, making sure you satisfy the customers the interface intends on supporting. Or as I like to say design for the 90%. There are some fantastic simplistic diagrams which make this chapter a great reference tool for developing your own interfaces.
4. Getting to Know Your Users Understanding your users and what they used to is an important part of the design process. Using market research like interviews and observational analysis one can better understand users tastes and competitor products they might be using. Sometimes the most efficient or logical interface might not be the right interface for your target market if they get confused trying to use it, and this chapter highlights this point. Process flow diagrams or tree diagrams are used in this section which illustrate different paths your users can explore to get around your interface.
5. Know Your Competitors Know Your competitors goes into more detail about competitor analysis – as picked up in the previous chapter it highlights the importance of user-context. Clever positioning diagrams are used to show where your interface fits in to the market. For example is your interface simple or more complex that competitors, does your design look and feel better than your competitors?
6. Content is King Interestingly the Content is King chapter is in the book, but upon further reading you understand that the content is the goal of your user. What good is it getting your users to the goal really elegantly and quickly when the goal is just not desirable in the first place? In this chapter it looks at typography and presentation models to best entice and please your user.
7. Designing for the Right Device There are so many different mediums these days, so how do you know which one to choose. From websites, to applications, to magazines and newspapers, anything you name it. Once again you quickly understand how important chapter 4 is about getting to know your user and how that affects your device selection. For product designers the concept of device selection is even more broad as you might not be selecting a device you might be creating the device yourself! There is an amazing full spread diagram in this chapter which matches content types to devices which would make a great poster to put up in your design wall! The chapter explores the limitations of these devices as well which are all helpful aspects to consider. I think too often the first decision we make is the device, we just assume we are designing for the right device without properly investigating our customer needs; and this can make or break your project even before you have started designing anything.
8. Guide, Motivate, and Engage the User This chapter talks about rewards and guiding customers through your interface. You want your interface to tell a story to a customer in many cases. Manipulating your interface in certain ways can help orchestrate your message to the user. Whether you want to give the user power to make decisions or whether you want the customer to make no decisions at all. These concepts and presentation methodologies represent your brand and your message greatly. There are some very challenging aspects in this chapter which include designing for your users needs not wants. This concept struck an ethical chord within me and convoluted ideas of whether I should be designing for what the client wants or what I think is best for the client. Questions like, how much should I listen to the client and how much should I dictate ideas and concepts to the user. It brings to mind the famous Steve Jobs paraphrase, if Henry Ford listened to his customers about what kind of transportation vehicle they want, they would say they want a faster horse, not a car.
9. Building Sitemaps, Wireframes, and Prototypes Sitemaps can be a powerful way to communicate with your team and/or client the aesthetical and functional layout of your interface. Storyboards, wireframes and comic strips are great communication methods for interfaces.
10. Branding the Experience The interface you provide for your users is intrinsic to your brand message as much as the correct positioning of your logo is on your interface. This chapter has many beautiful interfaces to take inspiration from and even has great logos to be envious of.
11. What can You Learn from Usability Testing? Of course once you are satisfied with your design the design process doesn’t stop there; you can’t just chuck your interface out into the zoo without doing sufficient testing and debugging. The more opinions and critiques you get the better. This chapter talks about procedures and being consistent with your feedback and evaluation.
12. If You Build It, They Won’t Always Come – Marketing and Experience One of the great positives of Interactive Design is that it goes above and beyond standard interface books by covering what you need to deliver a commercially successful interface not just a nice looking one. This is what this marketing chapter is all about. What’s the point of building the next Sydney Opera House in the desert if there is no-one around to see it! Like most designers I have experienced this first hand and from news reports. Ask any successful designer and they all have a story about a wonderful project they spend weeks and weeks on and then when it came to publishing it was like a ghost town. Even big companies like Microsoft famously launching products and services that never get any traction from customers.
13. Watch, Learn, and Adapt Although it is imperative that you do user testing for your interface you wont always be perfect. So it is important to be able to quick adapt and take on your users feedback to continuously improve your interface. One must also keep in mind we live in a dynamic world where things are always changing. Customer requirements don’t stand still in 2012, people demand different and better things and how is your interface going to facilitate these changes? Do you upgrade your experience or do you let it die out and launch new interfaces for changing needs?
14. Looking into the Future I wont spoil this chapter but it explores emerging trends of interfaces and has some final pointers so you can master your next user-centered interface.
Simply put, Interactive Design is one of the best new interface books on the market. It is comprehensive, easy to understand and extremely relevant using case studies and modern mediums to help connect with the reader. The book is designed for both students and professionals as the concepts are timeless in nature and although some of the topics can be fairly technical the way the book presents information using nice full-page quotes, beautiful diagrams and feature works makes it easy for even a novice to take on board. Although most of the examples cover graphic design interfaces like portable computers and website interfaces, it is absolutely relevant to product designers. The principles are very much universal, things like competitor analysis, user-path diagrams, research, testing are all great ways to improve your product designs. Unusually I don’t have any major faults of this title, so that is definitely saying something! Although it is heavily branded as being a theoretical book the information takes on its own lessons and breaks up the information well. The title is not text heavy or extremely weighty at 224 pages, so for true theologians this might not contain the analysis and literature references you may desire. However for the 99% this book hits all the right spots!