User interfaces still need work

Mark Rolson is a vice president at Frogdesign, the company that designed the physical appearance of the Macintosh computer, took part in a revamping of SAP AG's R/3 business applications and most recently helped hone the look and feel of the user interface (UI) in Microsoft's upcoming Windows XP operating system. Rolson spoke with Computerworld about UI design issues, including problems posed by the Web.

Q: What are the current hurdles that UI designers face?

A: Translating the design language of UI design away from engineering-driven realities to user concerns. UI precedent is set by standards being made by engineering limitations. Take the look and feel of Windows, where a lot of the UI treatment is there because the engineering has established the easiest way for a screen to be rendered. Outside of Windows, [in] what part of your life would you put up with that kind of gray and flat space? Not your car. Not your office.

SAP (AG's) R/3, that was a milestone in UI development. It's one thing to take a small system, like an MP3 player, and make it sexy. But SAP has 50,000 [applications] with unique events in each of them. To redesign it [was] a massive, systemic problem. That we were able to do anything for that signaled a shift in engineering's willingness to accept design as part of their process.

Q: Is everything about UI design Web-driven these days? Or can IT developers take a corporate-centric path to their applications?

A: Marketwise, a massive percentage is Web-driven. But remember, the Web look is basically just a custom look. Every Web site is different. It's not using a standard Windows look and feel. The controls have their own look and feel, and they function differently from site to site. We're spending a lot of time with companies, such as i2 [Technologies Inc.], to give a standard look and feel to Web applications. A Web UI should follow a similar uniformity like Windows, although it's not at all the Windows look.

It's a mistaken assumption that the Web is more usable than Windows. [Business-to-business] apps are hard to use -- harder than Windows. There are user interaction problems everywhere because everything is different, whether it's sorting data, searching data [or] selecting objects. You've got to learn new objects every time you go to a new site.

Q: What should B2B sites do before venturing forth and writing code?

A: The way to solve site complexity is with standard tactics. Set basic but firm rules [for] designers and developers [to] follow. You need a common set of controls, so when a user learns it once, they've got it. B2B apps have no commonality [now]. Each company should create [its] own common control library. Then they should reach out into the industry and share it.

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