Welcome to the first blog of Alex Souza An Eye On Design! I hope you enjoy the reading and provided feedback on topics you would like to see and discuss here. So, let’s start my first one!

Last year I was invited to give a talk at Microsoft TechEd Brazil. This annual event brings together developers and IT professionals around the country to a full 3 days conference, with sessions from 8AM to 7PM. In 2008, the number of attendees was around 2,000. My session was the last one of the first day, and I thought it would be empty due the fact the theme is not that technical, several other good sessions were scheduled at the same time and, most important, just a few designers attend the event. For my positive surprise, my session was packed with people! I finish the slides around 6:20PM, giving the audience the opportunity to ask questions up to 6:45PM, the official end of the day. It was amazing to answer questions to 7:15PM, with the last person walking with me to my car in the parking lot, around 7:30PM. It proves to me that the user experience theme is something that is very relevant not only to designers but also to our fellow colleagues developers and IT professionals. In fact, I replicate this session in Argentina and Uruguay with the same excellent results.

As usual, the organizers get topics and content from the best presentations of TechEd USA and adapt the subjects to local needs. In my case, they asked me to build on top of the session present by Mark Miller (he is is Chief Architect of the IDE Tools division at Developer Express at Microsoft – more on his blog). After see Mark’s presentation, I decided to “spice” a little bit some topics covered. Don’t get me wrong here, Mark’s job was great but do not forget he is a DEVELOPER, not a designer.

Basically my presentation was built with the idea of answering 3 excuses some developers may have about the lack (or bad) design in their products:

1) “User interface is subjective” (so, let’s spend a minimal time here);

2) “I am not an artist” (so, forgive my horrible color and font selection, just to name a few problems on the user experience);

3) “We can’t fix the user interface” (so, no matter how bad it is, use it like this!);

As you can see in the presentation (unfortunately the PowerPoint file was too big to upload, so, take a look at the PDF file attached. I changed all the backgrounds to white in order to minimize file size.), I tried to answer the statements using some of Mark’s suggestions but also my own experience as designer. Here goes the replies:

1) “User interface is subjective”

UIs can be measured using basic tips, like Mark’s Cost of Pressing Keys table, or real methodologies, like GOMS, on how to improve the cost of interaction. It means that we can track (and solve) pretty much all user interactions using the keyboard, the mouse, or even gestures.

My main contribution in this topic was to remind the audience about the importance of understand the differences between the several user models. Interfaces close to the implementation model (the way a device works) are worse than the ones close to the mental model (the way users understand how a device works). Here goes a quick example: what is closer to the mental model?


2) “I am not an artist”

I have to say this is my favorite topic from all of them. With all the resources that the web provides today, there is no excuses to keep the development or maintenance of horrible applications (in my design scale, horrible means the lack of use of best documented practices like, how to create color palettes, or how to select fonts, for example).

Again, I kept Mark’s suggestions, amplifying some topics he briefly introduced. For example, talking about colors, he suggests the use of HSL (Hue, Saturation and Luminance) instead of RGB (Red, Green, Blue), without any mention to basic color theory. Here, I talked about rules on how to build a good palette, according your needs and knowledge. Colors, alone, can (and may) be a completed posting, what shows the importance of this element in the user experience.

Here a simple “bad example”:


Take a minute a try to figure out how many designs flaws you can find here. I can name some to you (of course this is an amplified bad example but, think twice and remember how many UIs like that you have seen):

  • Too many colors, no rules applied;
  • Too many fonts! Too many bold;
  • Drop shadows in the “Comic Sans” title;
  • Horizontal bar not necessary in the first text area;
  • Button Close, secondary trigger here, is much BIGGER than the Send button, the most common trigger.

Take a look now at the same application, with just minor adjustments (no need of a “super hyper” designer here):


Some improvements done:

  • As the developer wanted to use colors instead of the plain components, a simple color palette (shades of blue only, plus white and grey, neutral colors that match everything) was selected;
  • The Tekton Pro font is easier to read and much more sophisticated, but also fun, than the Comic Sans. Also, the same Windows default font was used for the rest of the interface;
  • The secondary action (Close) button was resized and moved to the left. The Send button was increased a little to reinforce its importance in the navigation;
  • Drop shadow was not necessary in this case!

3) “We can’t fix the user interface”

The last topic is basically a junction of the first 2 ones. In the moment you know how to improve the interactions and learn how to control the user mood with the use of fonts and colors, it is easier to discover and fix basic interfaces problems.

To finish this first part, remember these basic rules to not be graded in my scale as horrible:

  • Do not use more that 2 fonts families in your projects (1 for titles and 1 for body). Ah, NEVER use the “famous” Comic Sans in professional applications (except only if you are coding an app for kids);
  • Avoid the use of several colors. Select a rule (monochromatic, triad, etc) and keep it to the end;
  • Simplify the amount of information presented in each screen;
  • Users are not like you:
    • They do not have the same equipment you have;
    • They do not have the same education/specialization you have;
    • They are not interested in technical details as you do;

A great user experience is worth the effort!

Next week: Integrating developers and designers

Take care!