Monday, October 01, 2007

Bringing simplicity in interfaces

The most intuitive interface ever designed is the human nipple.

I came across this statement while I was researching on some topic and ever since, it has just stuck in my mind. Come to think of it, how true it stands in its meaning. If you have ever observed a lactating mother feeding her baby, see how the baby’s tiny mouth opens up as the nipple comes near. The baby will stare blankly at faces but recognizes the feeding point immediately. And for babies of adult kind, they don’t need any intuitive visual cues!

That’s the power of simplicity. And it’s this simplicity that creates a brand out of an intuitive design. Oliver Reichenstein from Information Architect Inc. in one of his post on his blog talks about his McDonalds experience in Japan. Out of plethora of options available on the display tile, he settles for a plain Cheese Burger. Not that he has a fascination for it, but according to him, the visual of cheese burger is something he can relate to easily out of all other ‘local palate’ suited burgers. Walk into any McDonalds around the world, a plain cheese burger would look exactly the same way. When an interface becomes so simple, language or any other cultural barriers hold no fort. So when he has to place an order, not knowing Japanese language doesn’t matter to him. The visual of plain cheese burger is an instant recognition for him about the burger’s content.

Simplicity leads to intuitiveness and intuitiveness leads to creation of a brand. A brand that doesn’t always need the support of marketing for its creation. A brand that gets created by its own virtues.

In the Indian context, one of the brands which have a very intuitive interface I can think of is the erstwhile Mother Dairy logo. Since its inception till recent years, they had adapted the Operation Flood logo. The operation Flood logo is the most powerful & yet simple design that I can think of. It’s just not about logo design but the recognition that comes with the brand. Mother dairy has been around since I opened my eyes for the 1st time. No Delhiite can ever say that they don’t know what the logo stands for. In the early 80s, there was no concept of milk in poly pack. If you were living in Delhi and wanted milk, you had 3 options. A) The good ol’ Tabela milk delivered by the vendor. B) Go to the nearest Delhi Milk Scheme (DMS) booth and get bottled milk – which was again run by sarkaari karamcharis and somehow used to be a nightmarish experience and C) Go to Mother Dairy Booth. Now these Mother dairy booths were quite ‘hi tech’. They had automatic vending machines (yeah for the 80s…that’s hitech). You pay money to the booth guy, get tokens in lieu of the cash, place your diiba in the vending machine, put your coin in the slot and watch in fascination as half litre milk poured. If the coin used to get stuck, there was a lever which you had to pull and the coin used to come out in a slot below. There were 3 such machines in a booth. 2 machines used to pour half litre milk per token and the 3rd one used to pour 1 litre per token. So it kind of bifurcated people accordingly. Its been over 20 years now. Lot of cosmetic changes has come across the booth. Now it even sells Safal & other Mother Dairy products but the front end of the vending machine still has the same interface except few minor changes like addition of a LCD display to show how many tokens you have deposited in the machine (in the latest machines, you can insert all tokens one after another and then wait as milk starts pouring automatically). For more than 20 years the same interface has worked successfully and the only reason it has worked is because of its simplicity.

In the software context, the most complex task is to bring about simplicity in interfaces. As a designer at times we try to bring about lot of interactivities, marry technology components, bring widgets, thinking that this will bring around simplicity for user’s task but unknowingly we add complexity to the visual & interaction design. All these are just enablers. Focus on basics. Ask the question: Is your interface helping your user fulfill his key tasks without making him take support from other external factors to complete the task? In organizations where usability & processes related to it are still struggling to find a place user the sun, most of the time designers & usability analysts have to work with their hands tied. Lot of these ‘user research’ activities are left to ‘client knows the best’ and requirements come in some fancy documents to the designer. It’s a humungous job changing mindsets in the organization. Well after all Rome wasn’t built in a day so understandably, it will be time before usability processes gets implemented & awareness fully dawns within organization. Till that happens this is what I usually advice to designers when they get a voluminous BRD, HLD or any other fancy document in their hand. Don’t directly jump onto the design conceptualization. Scan through those documents, take a piece of paper, draw three columns on it and jot down the following things in the columns – various user roles, the tasks that each role can perform and finally in the 3rd column jot down according to “you” the steps that a user would need to perform to complete each task. Many times these requirement documents can be misleading & at times even designers tend to stick to it or get influenced by it. But even if we manage to crystallize these three things, rest follows. In 2001 while I was designing the Information Architecture for an online banking application, I came across a business analyst who was not willing to buy the flow that I had designed for the application. His wafer thin argument: the customer has asked us to design it in the way he wants and that’s how we have documented it! In next client meeting I accompanied him to client’s office to hear out their rationale. Then I drew out these 3 columns on their whiteboard with the details that I felt and explained my flow in that context. The customer was partially convinced but somehow his ‘ego’ didn’t allow him to accept the flow (that was 2001, usability was something unheard and customers especially Indian ones still thought they knew everything!). So I did the next best thing. I dragged both of them to the bank branch which was on ground floor and in their presence asked some of the bank customers questions which were in context with my proposed flow. Their replies vindicated my flow & made a few faces around go red. The customer had to accept that the flow that we had designed was indeed ‘user led’. Later, we even tested out prototype of the application with end users and worked on few teething problems that customers would face. When the application was launched, users accepted it wholeheartedly. It was profiled for its simplicity & ease of use in various tech magazines. Circa 2007. Except for a few security related changes, the netbanking application is still running the way we had designed it and is ranked amongst the best internet banking sites in India.

To conclude, just stick to basics. Remember, the mother dairy customer’s need was only milk and that’s what he got in that vending machine interface. 1 slot to put the token, 1 lever to retrieve the token and a clearly visible big compartment where he can put his jar for the milk to pour.


Puneet said...

Don't forget the Titan signature tune. I think its the best example of simplicity, continuity and progression over the years, while still mainating freshness every time you hear a new version.

But yes, simplicity should be the core of every communication task!

Keep writing!

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