My Foreword to Mullet and Sano's Book on Visual Design

by Jakob Nielsen on May 1, 1994

Foreword to Designing Visual Interfaces: Communication Oriented Techniques

I recently tried out a spreadsheet package that was installed on the corporate-wide computer net accessible through my workstation. Immediately after firing it up, I was struck by its primitive visual appearance. It spoke "stone-age design" and I simply couldn't get myself to use that ugly-looking a program. Admittedly, I was in a somewhat unusual situation since I had just started using a networked computer with access to a myriad of different software that had already been installed. If I had bought the package myself as part of a small set of tools, I would obviously had invested more time in exploring its possible hidden charms.

As software gets closer to achieving commodity status, users can be expected to make very rapid choices between the huge number of offerings available on the net, and just as I did, they will immediately discard any interface that looks boring, obsolete, or too confusing. Think of home users flipping through 500 channels of cable TV and then multiply by a factor of several thousands to match the smorgasbord of options on the Internet, commercial subscription services, and major corporate nets. Alternatively, to mention a current commercial product, think of Apple's Software Dispatch CD-ROM, which is distributed to large numbers of home computer owners with demo copies of 75 applications: Each of these apps would at best have a minute or two in which to seduce the customer. Intuitive appeal will thus be essential for the survival of software products in the future. In fact, we may not even talk about software as "products" any more if the model turns out to be more that of service provision through subscription and browsing.

Graphic design is the first and the last part of the user interface observed by the user. Immediately when novice users start up a new software package they are confronted by its visual design and the possibility of a profusion of icons, windows, panes, and dialog boxes. Even after having graduated to the expert user stage, people still have to look at the icons and other visual design elements of their favorite software every day. Would you want to live in a house where the bedroom was painted in an ugly combination of brown and purple? Probably not, but you may spend more time looking at the visual interface elements of your favorite software than you do looking at your bedroom walls.

In the bedroom wall example, people might buy the house anyway and then paint over the wall with a more agreeable color. This example leads me to consider an excuse some developers have for not providing a satisfactory visual interface to their products: "the user can just customize the design to his or her individual taste!" Leaving the design to the users is the ultimate abdication of the designer's responsibility to provide a quality product, and many studies have shown that users are in fact very poor designers and often customize their interface in ways that are detrimental to their productivity (e.g., by using color combinations that are known to cause reduced readability of screen text). Even though there are often reasons to allow users to customize some aspects of their environment, it is absolutely essential for the designer to give the users a carefully thought-out set of defaults to start out with. Also, users will be much more likely to end up with an appropriate customized design if they are given some pre-specified (and well-designed) options to chose from as done, for example, in the Pantone ColorUP set of recommended color combinations for presentation slides.

This book gives many systematic steps one can go through to improve the visual design characteristics of an interface. Mullet and Sano succeed in demonstrating that graphic design is not a black art but a very engineering-like discipline with its own rules. Also, just as in other types of engineering, the rules sometimes conflict and one has to make appropriate trade-offs to arrive at the design that best satisfies the needs at hand. One thing I particularly like about this book is that it makes it clear that graphic design in the user interface business is not just a matter of aesthetics. There is much more at stake than simply pretty pictures, and good graphic design can significantly improve the communicative value of the interface, leading to increased usability.

System usability has many components, including ease of learning, efficiency of use, memorability, reduced number of user errors, and subjective satisfaction. Good graphic design can improve all these quality attributes, though of course graphic design is only one element of overall user interface design, and one should employ systematic usability engineering methods in addition to the principles of graphic design discussed in this book.

It is amazing how much software gets released with horrible-looking interfaces because the developers did not bother to apply a few simple graphic design principles like those explained in this book. For example, I recently saw a system where the concept of a "queue" was represented by an icon of a billiard ball ("cue ball," get it?). Such visual puns may be fun to throw around in a design session but they are often detrimental to the novice user trying to make sense of a new visual environment. Also, of course, this product would be dead on arrival if it was ever exported to a non-English speaking country.

There is no substitute for having "real" graphic designers involved from the beginning in the design of any important interface with major visual elements. Given this fact, other user interface professionals are still often called upon to get involved in graphic design. This book makes it possible for the larger community of interface designers to improve their graphic design skills and understanding of graphic design concepts. Not only will this enable them to communicate better with their visually trained colleagues on interdisciplinary teams, but it will also enable them to do some designs on their own. Face it, we will never bring in enough professional graphic designers to fine tune every last dialog box in all the interfaces in the world, but at least there is no excuse any longer for leaving those dialog boxes to the tender mercies of people with zero understanding of graphic design.

Jakob Nielsen
Mountain View, California
May 1994


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