Easy to Learn vs Easy to Use

Created: Saturday, 09 May 2015 Written by Gary Elsbernd

Designing an application is a balance between making it easy to learn and easy to use.  Something easy to learn may require additional instructions, work breakdown or examples.  Something easy to use, on the other hand, assumes mastery of the domain knowledge an tool, and attempts to streamline the task at hand.

Consider tax preparation software – for the novice who does their taxes once a year (infrequent task, high consequence of failure), a wizard walks through a series of questions complete with “What is this important” and instructions about where to find the required information.  A CPA, on the other hand, can go directly to the forms and fill them out quickly, having already mastered the domain knowledge and completing the task frequently.  Each of these users would be lost or frustrated with the opposite interface.

Designing for the user requires knowledge of their context (domain mastery, frequency of task, how the task presents itself) which can only be found through upfront contextual inquiry.  Sometimes you may have to create multiple interfaces for an application, or bolted on wizards to support the normal users and “pros”.

Where to Start in UX

Created: Monday, 18 May 2015 Written by Gary Elsbernd

If you work in the field of User Experience, you have to know about the following resources. I will keep adding to this list.

Krug, S. (2013), Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, Berkeley, CA: New Riders

This book includes Krug’s Laws of Usability:

1. “Don’t make me think.”

2. “It doesn’t matter how many times I have to click, as long as each click is a mindless, unambiguous choice.”

3. “Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what is left.”

Norman, D. (2013), Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition, New York, NY: Basic Books

Formerly known as “Psychology of Everyday Things”, this book introduces the ideas of affordance and mental models. If you see anything by Donald Norman, get it and read it.

Beyer, H and Holtzblatt, K. (1997), Contextual Design: Defining Customer-Centered Systems, Burlington, MA: Morgan Kauffman

While this hasn’t been updated in far too long, this book supplies the techniques and tips to conduct thorough and effective user studies to identify “real users, doing real work, in their real environment.”

Ertmer, P., Quinn J. and Glazewski, K. (2013) The ID CaseBook: Case Studies in Instructional Design, Old Tappan, NJ: Pearson

This is a series of open-ended instructional design case studies that strengthen and encourage successful problem solving, and conceptual, procedural, and analytical skills to be used with a variety of real-world clients and the execution of creative solutions. Oh, and by the way, I co-wrote one of the case studies.

Also, Performance Consulting, by Robinson and Robinson, and Metaphors We Live By, by George Laikoff.


Consistency is the Hobgoblin of Little Minds... or Is It?

Created: Wednesday, 13 May 2015 Written by Gary Elsbernd

In my career, I have heard the quote “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” when a client or business owner wanted to do something new, often for the sake of doing something new. The full quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson is ““A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” There is a very important distinction there.

Consistency is essential to reducing the cognitive load of your interface – the mental effort required to complete a task. When a design is consistent, every interaction feels smooth and frictionless. When it is too inconsistent, the user must expend unnecessary effort figuring out the interface instead of completing the work.

Design patterns, like cliches, are used over and over again because they speak to an underlying truth. UI patterns are design solutions to common usability problems. Patterns benefit everyone – users already recognize how to use them from previous exposure, and designers don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Knowing where to find a home button, or how links are styled, or how to interact with a list builder are important to a user because few people sit down with an express goal of “I want to use this interface.” Instead, they want to complete a task, and your interface is either the tool that allows them to accomplish their goal or the roadblock keeping them from getting things done.

On the other hand, inconsistency is not all bad. You need to know when and why to break the consistency without leading to design chaos. There are several reasons you may wish to be inconsistent within your established style or conventions and patterns in the market.

All established patterns were once new. Without stretching our designs, we cannot progress. Doing the same things over and over will yield boring, uniform designs. Sometimes experimentation is necessary to see if social assumptions still hold true. When I first started developing CBT courses, the first module was always “How to Use a Mouse.” Times have changed and many advanced interaction patterns are now considered commonplace.

Sometimes the goal is to slow the user down. A friend of mine, Dr. Steve Fedorko, once floated the controversial idea that sometimes an organization should deter or prevent learning in order to force the user to slow down and contemplate their decisions. Actions with extreme consequences may be designed to change from use to use, so a user cannot mindlessly blast through without considering the consequences.

Intentional inconsistency can draw attention to your site for novelty, but must match the context – having a parallax slider and infinite zoom interface may be flashy, but would not work well for most purposes in a tax preparation organization. For that organization, reducing cognitive burden, streamlining performance and minimizing risk of error has to outweigh a “really bichin’ interface.”

The key, as is most often the case in design, is balance. Consistency does not equal uniformity. Design shouldn’t be a game of templates, but should reflect the usability advantages of existing patterns.


The Future of User Experience

Created: Thursday, 08 January 2015 Written by Gary Elsbernd

The field of user experience design has roots in human factors and ergonomics, a field that, since the late 1940s, has focused on the interaction between human users, machines, and the contextual environments to design systems that address the user's experience. With the proliferation of workplace computers in the early 1990s, user experience became an important concern for designers. It was Donald Norman, a user experience architect, who coined and brought the term user experience to wider knowledge.

I invented the term because I thought human interface and usability were too narrow. I wanted to cover all aspects of the person's experience with the system including industrial design graphics, the interface, the physical interaction and the manual. Since then the term has spread widely, so much so that it is starting to lose its meaning.

—Donald Norman

The term also has a more recent connection to user-centered design, human–computer interaction, and also incorporates elements from similar user-centered design fields.

Elements of user experience design

User experience design includes elements of interaction design, information architecture, user research, and other disciplines, and is concerned with all facets of the overall experience delivered to users. Following is a short analysis of its constituent parts.

Visual design

Visual design, also commonly known as graphic design, communication design, or visual communication, represents the aesthetics or look-and-feel of the front end of any user interface. Graphic treatment of interface elements is often perceived as the visual design. The purpose of visual design is to use visual elements like colors, images, and symbols to convey a message to its audience. Fundamentals of Gestalt psychology and visual perception give a cognitive perspective on how to create effective visual communication.

Information architecture

Information architecture is the art and science of structuring and organizing the information in products and services, supporting usability and findability. More basic concepts that are attached with information architecture are described below.


In the context of information architecture, information is separate from both knowledge and data, and lies nebulously between them. It is information about objects. The objects can range from websites, to software applications, to images et al. It is also concerned with metadata: terms used to describe and represent content objects such as documents, people, process, and organizations.

Structuring, organization, and labeling

Structuring is reducing information to its basic building units and then relating them to each other. Organization involves grouping these units in a distinctive and meaningful manner. Labeling means using appropriate wording to support easy navigation and findability.

Finding and managing

Findability is the most critical success factor for information architecture. If users are not able to find required information without browsing, searching or asking, then the findability of the information architecture fails. Navigation needs to be clearly conveyed to ease finding of the contents.

Interaction design

There are many key factors to understanding interaction design and how it can enable a pleasurable end user experience. It is well recognized that building great user experience requires interaction design to play a pivotal role in helping define what works best for the users. High demand for improved user experiences and strong focus on the end-users have made Interaction Designers critical in conceptualizing design that matches user expectations and standards of latest UI patterns and components. While working, Interaction Designers take several things in consideration. A few of them are:

  • Create the layout of the interface
  • Define Interaction patterns best suited in the context
  • Incorporate user needs collected during User Research, into the designs
  • Features and Information that are important to the user
  • Interface behavior like drag-drop, selections, mouse over actions, and so on
  • Effectively communicate strengths of the system
  • Make the interface intuitive by building affordances
  • Maintain consistency throughout the system

In the last few years, the role of interaction designer has shifted from being just focused on specifying UI components and communicating them to the engineers to a situation now where designers have more freedom to design contextual interfaces which are based on helping meet the user needs. Therefore, User Experience Design evolved into a multidisciplinary design branch that involves multiple technical aspects from motion graphics design and animation to programming.


Usability is the extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use.

Usability is attached with all tools used by humans and is extended to both digital and non-digital devices. Thus it is a subset of user experience but not wholly contained. The section of usability that intersects with user experience design is related to human’s ability to use a system or application. Good usability is essential to a positive user experience but does not alone guarantee it.


Accessibility of a system describes its ease of reach, use and understanding. In terms of user experience design it can also be related to the overall comprehensibility of the information and features. It contributes to shorten the learning curve attached with the system. Accessibility in many contexts can be related to the ease of use for people with disabilities and comes under Usability.

Human–computer interaction

Human–computer interaction is concerned with the design, evaluation and implementation of interactive computing systems for human use and with the study of major phenomena surrounding them.

Human–computer interaction is the main contributor to user experience design because of its emphasis on human performance rather than mere usability. It provides key research findings which inform the improvement of systems for the people. HCI extends its study towards more integrated interactions, such as tangible interactions, which is generally not covered in the practice of user experience. User experience cannot be manufactured or designed; it has to be incorporated in the design. Understanding the user's emotional quotient plays a key role while designing User Experience. The first step while designing the user experience is determining the reason a visitor will be visiting the website or use the application in question. Then the user experience can be designed accordingly.