User interfaces (UIs) allow users to control the programs and applications they’re using and operate software on a computer, smartphone, or tablet (to name a few).

So, what, then, is UI design? It’s a part of user experience (UX), which involves finding the best ways for users to interact with a product. UI, specifically, is the art and science that determines how people can use technology to accomplish their goals. This field is rapidly advancing — interfaces can now be operated by voice or even hand gestures. Capabilities once unimaginable have become a reality.

A computer or device’s UI is like the dashboard, steering wheel, gearshift, and pedals on a car, all put together. Like how drivers need to operate all of these components together in order to drive, users use a UI’s various buttons, gestures, and commands to operate software. UI’s also include readouts that show you what’s happening in the program, just like a car’s dashboard.

Just as automotive technology is constantly evolving, so is the UI for smart devices. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at UI design, how it works, characteristics of good UI design, and more. And if you want to learn more about UX, check out the free courses below:

What to expect from your UI

Users’ interactions can now go well beyond a click or swipe. People can gesture or speak to interact with devices. You can even unlock your phone with an iris scan or open apps on your smartwatch by moving your hand or arm.

Overall, users have less and less tolerance for a text-heavy UI — especially on smaller devices. Poor UI leads to a poor UX, and many people flee at the sight of a poorly designed screen. As a result, many sites and apps invest a lot of time and effort into making their UI responsive with visually appealing and easy-to-use functions.

So, as a Software Developer or Designer, what should you know about UI design to make sure your work will resonate and succeed with your users?

Designing UI for humans

UI design is a cutting-edge discipline, but it still has rules and principles. UI Designers strive to make it easier for users to interact with software, reducing the need for complicated thought and understanding. They also ensure all the interfaces within a system or technology are consistent.

To give users the feeling of control, Adobe recommends including these capabilities:

  • Make it easy for users to undo their actions.
  • Make the interface easy to navigate, which includes providing visual cues and making the outcomes of specific buttons, clicks, or gestures predictable.
  • Provide feedback for actions. For example, when a user presses a button, they should see a color change or hear a sound.
  • Show a system’s status clearly. If a process takes time to complete, the user should see a bar or percentage readout showing the remaining time.
  • Accommodate different skill levels. Your UI should be sophisticated enough to appeal to expert users, but you’ll still want to include help functions and guides for new users.

Along with the capabilities listed above, there are several other steps you can take to give your users a comfortable experience, such as:

  • Cutting out unnecessary elements.
  • Avoiding requiring re-entry of the same data.
  • Using general terms rather than jargon.
  • Making design elements equal in size to their importance in the application.
  • Bringing real-world elements into a design wherever possible (e.g., a picture of a credit card where payment information is entered).
  • Making error messages encouraging or pointing to helpful resources.

Creating good UI

Simplicity and consistency in UIs are also key to making a user experience comfortable. Apple products win praise for their ease of use because their UIs are often less complex than their competitors’. Consistency means that the UI should follow logical human assumptions. For example, you wouldn’t use a green stop button and a red go button for a timer.

UI elements also need to produce closure. When a button, gesture, or command starts a task, equivalent elements should finish or end that task. In other words, a task should produce an expected and desired result based on the expectations set by the command element.

For example, if you command Excel to add up all the numbers in a column, it should put the result in a cell at the bottom to complete the task.

When creating UIs, designers should be mindful of people’s capacities, such as how much information they can retain at a time. Taking “cognitive load” into account means:

  • Requiring fewer steps to complete a task.
  • Helping users operate systems by presenting a clear, uncluttered set of controls or buttons.
  • Keeping buttons and controls (and the way they operate) functionally consistent to avoid over-taxing user’s minds. Buttons and controls should all work the same way, as with pull-down menus throughout a program.

Designers should look for the correct programming language that can accomplish the desired UI elements — JavaScript might be better suited than Python, for example.

Accessibility features are another important part of UI design as they help ensure people with disabilities or impairments can use your software. You’ll want your program to be parsable by screen readers, and try using colors suitable for people with color blindness. Even font size can be a concern for some.

Learn more about user interface design

This article provides a solid foundation, but if you want to learn more about UI design, the best way is by creating your own. If you’re looking to improve your UI design abilities, check out any of the courses below:

And if you want to dive deeper into UX (or even break into the field), try our Introduction to UI and UX Design course to learn the fundamentals of the field and how to create your own wireframes.

Then, consider taking Learn User Research: Generative to see how UX Researchers connect with users to identify their wants and needs and Learn Design Thinking: Ideation to discover how to turn those insights into effective designs. You’ll also learn how to use two of the most popular tools used in the industry: Figma and Miro.

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