Designing User Interfaces for Users

A software user wants to do something, so she is looking at a screen. How does she get to the right screen, and then recognize how to get the program to do what she wants?  This is the important part of user interface design – it’s about finding and recognizing.  There’s a general consensus understanding of how menus should work, and operating systems have UI standards, so most programs are OK at this.  We expect, when we pick up a new program, to be able to figure out how to get around, without taking a course or even reading the manual carefully.

Occasionally, a command gets really misplaced, and we spend a half an hour looking for the button, only to discover it’s in a context menu – you have to right-click in just the right place on that screen you never go to.  This can mostly be eliminated by doing user interface inspections – it happens because the project gets rushed into creating functionality and nobody much thinks about how the user will find the command.   So that’s what happens when you don’t think about interface at all.  But even programs with well designed UI can place subtle burdens on their users.

Lately I’ve been working on a program to support David Allen’s Getting Things Done, or GTD method. This is a personal planning method, designed to get us out from under the burden of planning. His website banner reads, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” He describes his goal as “mind like water.”  The first step in the approach is “Capture” – make sure everything that needs to be remembered goes into the system. The better the capture system, the more the user is freed from having to worry or remember.  Some other steps in his process are “Organize” and “Engage” – aAll of them are described by strong verbs.  There is a one-page summary of the method is here.

The leading program implementing this system is OmniFocus, which is only available on Apple. Here is their opening screen:
Omni 2 iphone 02
This opening screen is a menu.  To capture a thought, or a phone number, or a promise you’ve made, or whatever, you open the inbox and leave a note there.  This is a file-centric approach to what the program is doing. What I mean is, the first 3 items in the list are the files you need to use in order to implement David Allen’s method.  There are dozens of programs implementing the GTD method – I have looked at 8 of them, and they all take this file-centric approach.  OmniFocus has the best interface among them because it gives us a clean view of those files. But it is up to you, the user, to know how those files relate to the GTD system, and it’s up to you to use them correctly.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t always want to be thinking about a file system.  In fact, in the “capture” phase and in the “do” phase, I just want to focus on the task at hand, and I want the program to do its job, but I also want it to disappear entirely.  The Clarity user interface is designed with this in mind – it is user-centric rather than file-centric. The main menu is not a list of files that you work with, it consists of “Capture”, “Organize”, “Do”.  These are the steps in the GTD process, so they are the ways that you will use the program. Instead of being on a screen by itself, this main menu appears at the bottom of all of the screens:

Clarity capture

The  program opens in Capture mode.  This screen provides one-click access to capture of text, audio, speech-to-text, recording of phone call, camera. video,  and url. The url capture is not a simple bookmark – it uses Zotero, which can take a snapshot of the web page and can also store files.

What you do not see on this page is the inbox.  You don’t have to “open” it in order to put things into it.  This means one less decision, and one less click for the user.

The user of the program is insulated from the file structure during the Capture and Do phases.  We only see the files during the “Organize” phase.  The inbox shows up here with all of the notes we have dropped into it.  To do items are organized in terms of projects and contexts.  It is here, in the organize phase, that the user herself is interested in the structure of things, so it is here that she can see the files.

130 Clarity organize inbox.fw


Here are some reasons why I think this is a better approach.

1.  If we think about the user using the program, she wants to be able to say what she is doing, and be given the appropriate information and choices.  When she doesn’t want to be thinking about the file system, she doesn’t have to think about the it – it just does its job.  In the GTD system, during the capture and engage phases, the program should be completely transparent.  In the capture phase, this means making a variety of notetaking modes available.  In the Do, or Engage phase, if the user has organized the inbox appropriately, she will only see the actions that are appropriate for the context she is in.

Users become proficient in translating their thoughts into the language of a program, so it doesn’t take a lot of thinking but it does take thinking.   One of the classic experiments in cognitive psychology involved the “velocity of rotation of mental images”.  Subjects asked to tell if a pair of figures were the same, but rotated in space.


From Wikipedia:

Roger Shepard and Jacqueline Metzler (1971) originally discovered this phenomenon. Their research showed that the reaction time for participants to decide if the pair of items matched or not was linearlyproportional to the angle of rotation from the original position. That is, the more an object has been rotated from the original, the longer it takes an individual to determine if the 2 images are of the same object or enantiomorphs (Sternberg 247). Shortly afterwards, Robert Sekuler and David Nash (1972) demonstrated that a pair of mental transformations, size scaling and rotation, produced additive effects on reaction time, consistent with serial processing of these transformations

This has to do with decision fatigue – that the mind can only make so many decisions in a day.  There is a cost for making a translation in the mind.   Maybe I’m being too dramatic.  It isn’t really that hard for users to know what file they want to work with.  My point is that it is not their problem.   A good interface is an invitation to action, not a problem to be solved.

2. Because the interface is organized around the actions that the user will take, functionality is almost always available in fewer keystrokes.  You can see how good OmniFocus is, in the fact that they provide a separate launch icon that will start up with the inbox open.  With two icons, they get exactly the same keystroke efficiency as Clarity gets with one.  In fact, Clarity gets the user to the commands in the the same or fewer keystrokes than in Omnifocus, for every use case that I’ve prototyped.  The larger the granularity of use cases, the better Clarity does.  At each stage of the GTD process, several files are involved, so with a file-centric approach, the user has to switch back and forth between files.  Clarity’s action centric interface results in less page switching, a dramatic reduction in keystrokes.

3. Rather than having to recall the process, users are guided through it.  GTD is a strongly directive process – things go into an inbox, to get them out of the inbox you file them or decide that it’s actionable.  If it’s actionable, you can do it immediately, delegate it, schedule it, and so on.  By organizing the program around what the users do, Clarity shows them how to do it.  


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