Archive for July, 2011

Getting The UI Right

Sunday, July 17th, 2011 Mike Ficco

Hey – we’re engineers, not artists, so why ever would you want us to do a user interface?  Well, one reason is possibly that we’re the only game in town.

I’ve lived through a number of situations where I, or a coworker, was asked to do a user interface.  Often (usually…) management would assert, “Don’t worry, this is just for a demo” or “Just throw it together quickly so we have something to use for testing”.  OH! But how many times we ended up actually delivering the “expedient” UI because, when it came time to ship, it was the only thing available.

So what is the actual problem with engineers building the UI?  The big problem is many engineers view the user interface as a tool.  They focus on functionality and not so much on form, attractive colors, texture, flow, presentation, etc.  Some engineers have difficulty breaking out of this mold but others, given the proper management environment, are ideal UI developers because:

  1. The understand what this “tool” has to do
  2. They are well suited, by training and background, to understand the capabilities and limitations of the technology used to implement the user interface.

A really, really, key factor in an engineer making a high quality UI is the always elusive “proper management environment”.  In my opinion, Steve Jobs has led Apple to great success because of two critical components of this “proper management environment”.

  • He insists the product actually work (this may be far more rare than you might think).
  • From his early commitment to a GUI/windowed operating system to packaging silver MacBooks in black velvet, he demands his products not only work well but present well.

Additional management tolerance is needed when the technology being used to develop the UI is unfamiliar.  Time must be invested in simply “playing” with the technology to explore its limitations and to see what works best (see my blog “Design First, Right” with screen samples at

Finally, management vision is needed.  The person assigning work to the engineer must see the value in going back and revisiting a somewhat “working” UI.  To take the time to hone it and perhaps even reinvent it with the knowledge and experience gained in making the first “expedient” version.

Like all things in engineering, perhaps all things in life, high quality results are achieved when you start with good people, provide vision and good direction, and above all allow some time for tweaking and polishing the final product.  Yes, time is money, but a quality product that works well and presents well sells much better than a smoldering pile of manure.