Re: Hard to Revise a UI

Subject: Re: Hard to Revise a UI
From: Beth Agnew <beth -dot- agnew -at- senecac -dot- on -dot- ca>
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com
Date: Mon, 09 Oct 2006 16:05:52 -0400

It could be a harder fix than you realize. In order to get a good UI, you have to have correctly gathered the requirements -- what the product is supposed to do for the user. It sounds like your company is letting the developers design the product based on their own (assumptive and usually faulty) ideas of what they think the product should do. It all comes back to a correctly-managed Software Development Life Cycle. I see the kind of mess you describe in companies where they have very little process or capability maturity. The jump in and start coding because someone has a bright idea about what they think would make a good software product.

Instead, they should talk to the potential users (this is marketing's job) to find out what they need from the product. Once you have those requirements, an intelligent process is followed to develop specifications and design. Then the developers should simply build what has been approved. Changes are rigorously controlled to keep them aligned with the requirements. You get a well-designed user-friendly UI because the designers (not always the developers) have thought about the product from the user's perspective.

The other factors are laziness and lack of foresight. I have seen too many products that had the typical 3-pane interface with a file browser on the left and selector or input panels on the right because it is standard with MFC code. The product became what was easiest for the developers. You either have a user-focused development methodology, or a developer-focused one. That kind of change is organic and fundamental, and not likely to happen unless the company has an epiphany.

For examples of getting stuck with a UI that serves the developers or engineers rather than the users, just look at the early computers, and even the typewriter. While there have been UI improvements, most of them still work the way that is best for the computer, not the user. The users have had to learn to adapt.

Nancy Allison wrote:

Hi, everyone. I'm trying to get to grips with a topic that's not clear to me. In a nutshell, I'd like to be able to explain why it's a bad idea for a company to develop a product's functions first, before thinking about the user interface (or documentation).

For example, I know of a startup where the developers have created very powerful functions, with the strangest user interface you have ever seen. It is just plain bizarre. Functions have strange names; tools are scattered around the interface in no discernible order; different buttons lead to confusingly similar drop-down lists and directories, with no clear indication of what you can or can't do in each area.

It's a geek's paradise, and a total mess. The lead developer said to me, "Oh, we'll fix the UI later."

Even in less drastic situations, developers often think this. But, I have heard that it may not be possible to completely redo a UI once the software architecture is in place. This is what I would like to understand, so that I can intelligently explain it, with examples.

So, folks, does anyone on this list know of a good example? Why would it be difficult to revise a UI? What are the difficulties involved? Can revising a UI actually break the functioning of the software? Can it force the redevelopment of the underlying software? Thanks for any and all help!
Beth Agnew
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Professor, Technical Communication
Seneca College of Applied Arts & Technology
Toronto, ON 416.491.5050 x3133


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Hard to Revise a UI: From: Nancy Allison

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