Daniel Nisbet

Episode 75  |  September 21, 2018

Using Design to Guide People Through Challenging Tasks

As users demand more out of their smartphones, websites, or computers, it's becoming even more important for designers to help them get through challenging tasks. It's important that they can take to the interface in a simple, efficient and easy manner that doesn't make them want to give up.

The inspiration for today's episode came from playing Super Mario. A while ago, I ended up getting an NES Classic and found my love for old 8-bit games all over again. Firing up Super Mario, it was fun to recall how intuitive it was to start playing. I remember when it came out how I didn't even need to question how to play. I could start the game and go. There was no tutorial to tell you to run right, B was run and A was jump. No Clippy in the corner, either.

Progressing through the game, I learned more and was able to complete more complex worlds until I eventually beat the game. Some of the new games I play take an opposite approach now. There's all sorts of tutorials and assists at the ready to help a player get started. On one hand, games today are more complex to play than Mario was. But where I made a strong parallel was user interfaces.

UI and Mario have a lot in common. When we're designing an interface, we have to assume a basic level of knowledge. We also need to keep the end goal in mind. Where things get tripped up is when designers begin making assumptions. In a short amount of time, too many options are displayed or the user gets confused with how to progress. Eventually, they get frustrated and quit.

I have three small rules that I use anytime I'm designing an interface, making it easy for a user to get from point A to point B.

Make sure the initial wins are easy wins

When someone is starting to use your interface, boost their confidence quickly by giving them a "quick win" or two. Show that they're making progress and encourage them to keep going. I like including help links in obvious place—in the corner or off to a side.

Make help easy to find

If your interface is intuitive, don't push unwanted help in the way. A clear design makes it obvious what to do. Add help options off to the side or in a corner where a user might expect it. This is exactly why Clippy got the bad rap. Unwanted help = frustration.

Never assume anything

While things should be clear and concise, its never a good idea to assume anything. If a design element like a forward button is in the bottom-right corner at the start, it needs to be there any other time it shows up. Credit card machines are prime offenders on this one. People can be easily confused if something unexpected pops up after they get into the habit of navigating the design.

As designers, we always want to be creative and clever, but it comes with a limit. We can't assume that a user will always keep up or be in the same mindset. If we confuse the user, they get frustrated and eventually, give up.

So those are my three simple rules. Obviously, there's a lot that goes into UI design, especially as various complexities arise. But at the core, following these three rules will keep you well on your way to creating a great user experience.