UX: Being Good is better than being Consistent

The Inspiration

This Dave Winer post on firefox ( http://www.scripting.com/2005/11/19.html#convincingFirefoxToSelectallOnClick ) reminded me to post my thoughts on UX consistency.


My Observation

By default when we design a User Experience we default to being consistent with some standard (a convention or pattern of UI, a corporate guideline, a previous version, etc.). It's a completely valid approach.

I've seen some people turn this from a default position to an inflexible rule. That is, they will, knowingly or not, sacrifice for consistency even those deviations that, by their own admission, are better for the user.


To What End, Consistency?

The reason we make UI consistent is to Make life better for our users and NOT to be consistent (a tautology).


A Tool, Not a Dogma

Consistency is just one of many tools we have available to create that better experience.

Although I, in general, start from a position of consistency, all things being equal, I'll take an UI inconsistency that makes a better user experience over a consistent UI that makes it worse.


Users can absorb some inconsistency

In some cases, inconsistencies are completely unnoticed by our users.


  • Case1 - Drag a file (left click) in Windows Explorer from one hard drive to another. The file is copied.
  • Case2 - Drag a file (left click) in Windows Explorer from one folder to another folder in the same drive. The file is moved.


  • Why does it do this? I don't know.
  • Is it consistent? No.
  • Does anyone notice? When I've pointed it out to people they were always surprised.
  • Does the iconsistency ever cause a problem? Not that I have heard. As far as I can tell, Windows Explorer in regard to dragging files "Just Works"



My most important lesson about designing User Interfaces

Look at your screen right now. What do you see?

If you design software you'll see things like:

  • taskbars or docks or apps or notifications.
  • HWNDs and DeviceContexts.
  • start menus, systray icons, docked windows


What our users see

a piece of glass with glowing shapes on it.


My point

We who work in designing software products are exposed to UI in high doses. This warps our perception. Those shapes on the screen are *meaningful* to us at many levels:

  • A white dot surrounded with a thin black circle is a radiobutton in an unselected state.
  • A square white box with a thin black edge is a unchecked checkbox.
  • Triangles on the header columns of listviews will resort the listview on that column in ascending or descending order depending on the orientation of the triangle

Our users? Their interest is highly focused on *what they want out of their computer* and not on the underlying semantics of the UI technology that is blasting shapes onto that piece of glass.

Keep that in mind the next time you think about the usability of your UI. Is the UI really as *obvious* as you think it is?

Saveen Reddy


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