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News  8, Jul 2014

The Next Leap: 5 things you need to know to build an awesome user interface

We talk to the web and product designing pros from Minitheory about what makes a good user interface and user experience

As a part of ‘The Next Leap’ series – an e27 & Samsung Developers knowledge sharing collaboration, we will be covering hot tech topics every Tuesday. To start with, we list the trends that will dominate in 2014.

People take the design of a website layout and the menu system on electronic devices for granted. If it weren’t for smart fellows communicating and laying down slick-looking homepages, as well as easy-to-navigate home screens for smartphones and apps, we would be knee-deep in GeoCities and Angelfire-style garish eyesores. Without these visionaries, we’ll be stuck navigating sites with layouts more confusing than the Greek Labyrinth.

But what makes a website tick and garner most hits and views, apart from content? What makes us suddenly swipe through an app’s options on a handphone as if it were natural without any need for a tutorial? What makes the whole experience of it all gel together when it links with an interface? According to Michael Chen and Jun Lee Lin, Co-founders of web and product design studio Minitheory, intuitiveness and simplicity is the key to an accessible product.

From left: Michael Chen and Jun Lin Lee

Minitheory is a company that specialises in responsive web design. Both the founders work to make sure that navigating any programme is a cinch for mainstream app users and technologically-sound experts. We had a chat with them about the ins and outs of user interfaces and user experiences, and how to make them awesome for people.

UI and UX are not the same
User interfaces and user intuitiveness can’t be lumped up together, said Chen. “If we consider driving as an analogy, the ‘user interface’ refers to the steering wheel, gas and brake pedals, clutch, and other front-end car-driving equipment. A good user interface lets you complete your task as effortlessly as possible. By this definition, auto transition is a better user interface for the car compared to manual gear transition.”

Following the same analogy, a user experience is affected by the showroom experience and engine performance along with other outside factors. “A good user experience is when you are happy with every point of contact you have with the company you are buying from. When you have consistently good encounters with every facet of the company you come in contact with, that’s a good user experience,” he explained.

Chen feels that it’s easier to create a good user interface than a good user experience. “Good user experience professionals tend to be in leadership positions with direct access to the boardroom, where they can help with strategic planning and executive decisions. In comparison, good user interface designers tend towards technical excellence,” said Chen.

Indinero is one of the many clients of Minitheory

 

Dr Feel-good
Lee, who is now a full-time employee at travelmob, said that a good user experience is when all aspects of a product or service come full circle to work hand in hand to contribute towards a user’s overall experience. “In order to achieve this, it is important to identify the various touchpoints a potential user has when they attempt to achieve a goal or satisfy a need, then designing around the various touchpoints. These touchpoints make up a journey of sorts that a user takes and may include how and when they first encounter the product or service, leading to their purchase, post-purchase, support, retention and more,” said Lin.

He cited that many businesses don’t deliver on customer service and support at the post-purchase phase, and instead focus on the touchpoints leading up to the purchasing part. He added, “Good user experience is thus best led by professionals who are able to work closely with management and executives to help them understand the value, the work required and the importance of understanding user needs.”

Lee stressed that a good interface doesn’t automatically create a good user experience; rather it’s a part of it. A great interface has to be clear, concise and able to empower users to satisfy their need in the easiest way possible. He noted, “A good user interface is understandable, unobtrusive and unpretentious and seeks to help users achieve what they set out to do, as well as provide good and necessary feedback along the way.”

Favourite things
If Chen had to pick his favourite design, it’ll be the e-mail client Gmail. He has many praises for it, as like most people on the planet, he uses it every day. “It’s great because the interface gets out of the way and lets you do your job. It doesn’t have bells and whistles, but it’s optimised to let do e-mail really efficiently. I’d like to highlight the new compose window as an example of a good design. A good design solves real problems, and the new compose window lets me refer to another e-mail as I’m composing a new one,” he noted. While he finds the tabbed inboxes not to his preference, he believes that it is the gold standard for free software.

Chen’s favourite user experience is the clothing distribution services of Tate & Tonic. “The handwritten card I received in the box was a pleasant surprise. You can see there’s a good integration between the online and offline components of their service. If they manage to make the integration even tighter, there’s lots of potential there,” he added.

As for Lee, he loves the intricacies of Singapore online supermarket RedMart’s interface. He stated,”You can look to RedMart for the ease of use of their website, mobile apps and also the tremendous work they have put into designing a logistics solution to ensure timely deliveries, which is a huge core to their business. They understand the importance of designing for the various touchpoints their customers have with the company, from placing an order up to receiving it.”

Both experts from Minitheory said that Redmart has a good user interface and also deliver a good user experience

Lee is also a fan of customer engagement programme Zopim’s simple and elegant design. “(It also) provides a whole lot of value for its customers and users. Good design takes into consideration how the solution contributes to help the users and businesses.”

 

Rookie mistakes
So what are the mistakes you should attempt to avoid when creating user interfaces and experiences? According to Chen, the most common one is retreating to your safe zone and assuming that you can wow audiences and clients with some digital magic.

“We’re designers, not artists. Our job is to solve problems, and in order to do that we must understand the problem. And for that to happen, we have to talk to people. It is scary, but it’s necessary.” Chen believes that communication separates the good designers from the top tier ones.

Lee added that another common error is not seeking user and stakeholder feedback about your design solution. “As a graphic designer when I just started out, it was easy to be caught up with the need to come back to clients with a magic solution that they will simply accept. Growing and learning from experience, it became clear that designers need to communicate with users and clients to first understand their issues and problems. Then, we can communicate our proposed solutions across effectively.”

From his experience, it’s better to ask the common user and a company stakeholder to point out design problems that you can uncover in great depths later. “For instance,” continued Lee, “the customer support team will have troves of information regarding complaints and issues about a product or service which can help designers come up with better solutions and help in prioritising needs.” Both Chen and Lee agree that a pretty website or app does not automatically translate into a good interface or user experience.

Good designers have to come up with an elegant solution that solves the problem users have currently, and also get the job they want done. “In order to arrive at these solutions,” Lee said, “designers need to be able to communicate, seek out vital information to define the problem first. At the same time, designers should take into consideration how their solutions help the business needs, goals and objectives. If you are able to delight users along the way, then all the better.”

Fighting for a sleek user-friendly future
The world needs more innovators in making comfortable interfaces ripe for navigating. Chen’s advice for would-be designers taking up this trade is to learn and absorb as much knowledge as possible. “How high your salary is should come second. Always choose the opportunity that will let you learn more, even if it pays less. Attitude is super important. When you dedicate yourself fully to your craft instead of trying to make a quick buck, the money will eventually follow as your skills grow. There is just no substitute for hard work,” he added.

Judging from both men’s educational background, knowing your way around Adobe Photoshop and having some art sense helps too. Chen also believes that introspection is important. “Look inside and figure out what your motivations are. Stay humble, ask questions (preferably after googling) and don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know something.”

Lee capped it off with a different take of Steve Job’s legendary quote: “Stay honest, humble and hungry. Be honest about what you don’t know and the way you go about your work and treating others. Be humble about what you do know and be willing to share. Finally, always be hungry to learn more about your skills, your users, your company’s business needs and thinking about how you can best contribute and help users with their needs.”

The Next Leap is a collaboration between e27 and Samsung Developers to tell the stories of innovators and startups across Asia, who push the envelope in technology and business. Visit Samsung Developers Asia’s website for all your development needs on the Samsung platform.

Jonathan Toyad

Jonathan Toyad

If you want an elaborate answer on who would win in a fight between Ultraman and Godzilla, Jonathan Toyad is your man. A six-year veteran in the game journalism industry, he did words and videos for outlets such as GameSpot, GameAxis, IGN and Stuff.TV. Fears coyotes and scorched earths.

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