A user interface (UI) is the part of hardware, software—or your business—that people interact with. You’ve probably heard the term before, but let’s look at a few examples of more typical user interfaces before we talk about what the user interface of a company might look like.
User Interface Examples
This is a drum machine, the Elektron Model:Samples:
The elements of its user interface are pretty much exactly what you see: a bunch of buttons and knobs, with labels. This type of user interface, where there is one button or knob for each function, is pretty easy to learn and use—but crowded. It works great for an instrument, but you probably wouldn’t want a cell phone covered in single-function knobs.
You are reading this through a user interface. The keyboard, mouse, and screen are the hardware interface. The software—your web browser, in this case—has buttons for navigation, an address field, a document window, and more. And this web page itself has some (minimal) UI elements, like the links that take you to other pages or websites. Software interfaces like the screen of your smartphone or tablet can be flexible, presenting different information and controls depending on the context.
It’s not exactly hardware or software, but Chipotle restaurants have a user interface, too:
The user interface is the big, simple menu on the wall, plus the staff who will ask you what you want or answer your questions about the food. Many fast-food restaurants now have similar UIs. A sit-down restaurant also has a user interface, but it’s a little more hidden. The host who greets you and shows you to your table, the wait staff who ask for your drink order and tell you the specials, and the menu itself are all part of the user interface.
In fact, you can probably identify a user interface for most anything you interact with. A car, a guitar, an oven, a door …
… or your company.
Your Company’s User Interface
How does someone interact with your company—how do they use your services? Try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who wants to use your company’s services. How do they do that? Consider some of the secondary tasks that might come up, as well. How would someone update their contact information in your system? How would they view the progress of the work? How would they find their account balance? How would they get a status update?
Your answers should help you identify the components of your company’s user interface.
At many small service companies, “just give us a call” (or “email us”) is the primary (or only) user interface. Others make their website or a web app the primary user interface, where clients can log in and complete tasks on their own. Still others—like many government agencies—make paperwork (or online forms) the primary user interface.
Once you have identified your company’s user interface, consider how you might improve it.
User Interface Best Practices
User experience architect Nick Babich distilled 4 “golden rules” of UI design from a variety of sources:
- Place users in control of the interface.
- Make it comfortable for a user to interact with a product.
- Reduce cognitive load.
- Make user interfaces consistent.
Babich was primarily writing about software and voice-based systems, but his four “rules” could apply to any kind of interface, including your company’s. For each component of your company’s user interface, ask yourself whether it serves those four functions. Does it place your clients in control? Is it comfortable for them to use? Is it easy for them to use (i.e., does it reduce their cognitive load)? Is it consistent with other components of the interface, so that in learning how to do one thing your clients learn how to do other things?
You will probably identify things you can improve. (Even companies that have products with excellent UIs are constantly trying to improve them, so if you can’t think of anything you probably aren’t thinking very hard!) So start working on those things!
And if you want to learn more about user interface design, Don Norma’s seminal The Design of Everyday Things is a must-read. So is Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think. If you want to dig deeper into user interface (and user experience) design, you can find lots of reading lists online, and most of the recommendations overlap.
And of course, if you want help designing your company’s user interface, let’s talk.