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Friday
Sep232011

A Lesson in User Interface Humility

Ages ago I worked on a Microsoft project called Mako – a project whose technologies, philosophies, team members would would go on to form the Forefront Client Security product. I owned the User Experience team in Mako. So keep it in mind that I and my team of program managers, developers, and testers were entrusted with making sure end-users, IT staff, and developers would be able to complete secure a Windows deployment in an enterprise.

Someone walked into my office one day and asked me to join him in a meeting. He had mocked-up some UI to model security configuration. He was trying to create a UI that let users create something like snort rules. He wanted to show this UI to someone in Microsoft’s IT Department who was familiar with network security to get their feedback.

I only got a chance to see the UI just as I arrived at the meeting and it looked like he had taken every possible widget in windows and crammed it into one gigantic form. I no longer have a screenshot of the UI he had created but it looked similar to the one shown below:

image

This screenshot comes from this document I found recently: A Graphical User Interface for Writing Snort Rules by Christopher R. Evans.

And to be honest the screenshot above doesn’t even do justice to the UI that I was shown.  What I was looking at was even more complicated. But at least, this gives you a sense of what I was seeing.

 

A USER REACTS

The meeting begins and I’m internally amused at the thought of how bad the feedback is going to be. The security expert walks in, in presented with this screenshot, and her eyes widen and she loudly proclaims.

“Don’t change anything”

To this day, her reaction has been the most positive reaction to a UI design that I have ever scene.

And then she proceeded to explain how every other time someone had shown her some UI on this topic, they had always tried to simplify it according to their perspectives of what simple meant without even trying to understanding what her real challenges were. This UI it seemed actually “got it” – respected the actual job she was doing.

 

WHAT I LEARNED

Simply put: Understand the life your users/customers actually have – not your sanitized, idealized versions of them.

I was guilty of evaluating this UI only at the surface – it is really easy to criticize at that level – without asking the simple and basic questions around the end user scenarios and pains. I haven’t made that mistake since.

 

CAVEAT EMPTOR

I don’t mean to imply that this is the best UI that could ever be done. Of course, we would like to have both something that delighted our customers and conformed to our traditional sense of beauty, consistency, and usability. If one can achieve both with a UI design, it would certainly be preferable.

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