A thought about the evolution of our UX designs

In the beginning we had widgets. ¬†Buttons, textboxes, checkboxes, and static (not-interactive) text, on our user-interfaces (which I refer to here as “UX”).

That was in the days of purely desktop applications, running on Apple Macs, Windows, and Linux/Unix. As our display-screens gained higher resolution, our widgets became more detailed and visually obvious. Yeah, sometimes it was worthless eye-candy that only cluttered the screen. But often it was graphic design that served to help us — it made the widgets stand out so to help us identify what they were and how to use them. Every available action provided a button of some sort. And buttons were a metaphor for something physical — a BUTTON, and these could have a visual rendering that reminded us of that, such as 3D shapes, lighting and shading, textures, and a subtle animation that happened when you clicked on it (or touched it with your finger, where touch-sensitive surfaces were used). The original Apple iPhone and iPod seemed to be elevating this aspect to a new art-form. I loved that.

Then something happened. Buttons began to be replaced with links, some bit of text that you could click on. And those were not always rendered such that it was obvious. Touch-screens and mobile devices began to change the landscape, and Microsoft came out with their “Metro” look on Windows Phone and Windows 8. I liked the Windows Phone, but that Metro-ness caused me some major angst on Windows. On the tiny smartphone it made sense, and the layout was nice and efficient. On the desktop screen – it made no sense. Why have a 5K display-surface just to show a few solid blocks of color that force themselves over the entire screen? ¬†Then Apple followed along, ironically wasting the fine work they’d done on their UX designs. 3D buttons evolved into simple rectangles of color, or just links. Sometimes, those links are so tiny and indistinguishable from the rest of the (often very tiny) screen, that they became hard to use.

Well, I’m unhappy. Snarl. Hiss. Boo.

I’ve a smartphone with a very high-resolution display surface, an impressive amount of computing power, and a very hard-to-use software design. WTF? !!!

Someone, has forgotten (or never learned!) the basic principles of UX design: make it simple, intuitive, and obvious.

Every major action should have a button (or icon, functioning as a button). And buttons should be obvious, and cover all of the common workflow-paths that the user may want to accomplish, from where she may want to do it. If you are looking at text messages, where is the “delete this text-message” button? Is it within that “all other actions” icon that is stuck up in the corner? Nope! Argh!!

This devolution in our UX-design has major consequences. I have missed crucial appointments because when I entered it into my Calendar, some field that escaped my notice was somehow not correctly set. Sometimes someone calls me and I look at my phone and cannot tell how to answer this call. And I still cannot reliably get into my own voicemail.

Yeah, after many decades of being a designer, I guess in some respects I am old-school. I respond to that accusation with the admonition that some basic rules of engineering do not, and should not be assumed to, change.


About James W Hurst

a professional software designer since the beginning days of the desktop cptr and uC-controlled avionics, I today am focusing on Java, Swift, C# and F# for building mobile and desktop and online applications under Android, Xamarin.Forms, iOS, WPF, and ASP.NET-MVC along with the requisite HTML/CSS/JavaScript/Ajax for web applications. My database expertise has covered a panoply of different database-engines and modeling approaches, and my main area of academic interest is Artificial Intelligence and vision.
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