What Would Alan Cooper Do?

I have been recently thinking about designing simple yet powerful UI.  I recently sat down one weekend to take notes from Alan Cooper, one of the thought leaders in interface design, from his book About Face.   Below are some of the points from the book that I found particularly interesting that I have been trying to keep in mind as we have been designing the Camano and Manual Testing UIs.  In future postings, I'll discuss how we have applied these design principles to recent versions of the Test product.


Design for intermediates users


Cooper argues that the vast majority of users of any software product can be categorized as intermediate users - users who basically know how to use the product and generally use it for doing the same thing all the time. He estimates that such users are around 80% of the users who use the product, with the remaining 20% equally distributed between advance and beginner users.


However, he interestingly points out that although they are the majority of the users of the product, often their needs are often neglected in the design.  He states that management tend to advocate most for the needs of beginners since beginners are the users that they tend to most interact with, while developers are by definition expert users of the product and tend to think of end users as experts too.  Cooper feels that intermediates tend to get lost in the mix, even though they are the majority of the users.


He explains that the needs of the 3 types of users differ due to their familiarity with product.  While experts want quick ways to do things and the ability to customize the app, beginners are most concerned with overviewing the basics of the tool. Intermediates tend to want to do the same things with the tool repeatedly and do not want to have their work processes obstructed. 


Use tools that help beginners to become intermediates


While only 10% of users at any point in the project are beginners, all users of the product must pass through the state of being a beginner user.  Special attention should therefore be paid to designing the interface to help new users to learn the basics of the application.


Although migrating users to intermediates is a goal of the UI design, Cooper is quick to note that once a user has moved from being a beginner user to an intermediate user, the UI that helped them to achieve this task will be of little use to the user.  In fact, it will likely obstruct the user's flow. 


There are numerous products that try to educate beginner users but at the same time  really annoy intermediate users of the product.  In VS2008 for example, we inserted comments into generated unit tests help beginner users to understand the various components of a unit test. While they serve to help users understand the components of the unit test, once they understand the components, they get in the user's way. 


To help users become intermediates, he suggests adding something to the UI that provides overview information to the user on the use of the product.  He suggests that it should be possible to remove this information from the UI when the user wants to turn it off.  This classically takes the form of a "getting started" video which overviews the features of the product.


Cooper thinks that online help and tooltips actually best serve intermediate users rather than beginners since their needs are slightly different.  He suggests that intermediates search for reference educational materials, while beginners tend to be most interested in material that overviews the materials.


Less is more


I love this quote: "No matter how cool your interface is, less of it would be better."


Sometimes in UI design, I think that we forget that users use a product as a tool to accomplish a specific goal. Sometimes we get carried away with cool navigation tools such that we put too much of it in the UI. A purple hammer which glows in the dark is useless if it can't effectively put nails into wood.


Cooper is an advocate of minimalist design where every options should be purposeful and direct. He advocates for fewer more direct options in an interface. He states that in a well orchestrated UI design, the UI becomes almost transparent to the user since it naturally follows their mental model.


Design for the probable, provide for the possible


Cooper is an advocate for following the user's mental model when designing the product and optimizing for the mainline flow through the application. While this often means that one should eliminate more options from a dialog than a programmer may feel comfortable doing, it does not imply that there should not be ways to do more complex and sophisticated things, just that they should be more difficult to access.


If one were to outline the types of activities that a user can perform at any one stage in an application workflow, Cooper feels that there will always be one or two items that are the most likely to be performed. Thus, the interface should be optimized to help the user find these activities and guide them through this workflow rather than just listing all options at all times. There should be a way for the user to access non-mainstream activities, but the UI should not be optimized for its use.


I think the office ribbon did a fantastic job of optimizing for the probable but allowing for the possible. In the ribbon, the items that are likeliest for the user to want to use are 1 click away, the items that they will use less are 2 clicks away, the items that very unlikely to be used are 3+ clicks away. They clearly optimized their UI for the probable.


Eliminate Error and Confirmations Dialogs


Keeping with the theme of following a user's mental model and removing obstacles that can obstruct intermediate user's flow, Cooper advocates for removing all error and confirmation dialogs from a product. He feels that applications should do what statistically has a good chance of being correct but provide users with an option to undo their actions.


Cooper states that users like to see their options available to them, perform an action, and then get confirmation that the action had successfully occurred. Without confirmation than an action occurred, users wonder if their actions actually took place. Rather than provide pop-up notifications, in order to communicate the result of actions, Cooper favors inline status alerts and positive auditory feedback.


While I agree that it would be ideal to get rid of confirmation dialogs in all circumstances, getting rid of them entirely feels too drastic for my taste. To implement what Cooper suggests, developers need to make each action that the user performs reversible, which is both costly and in my opinion, not needed. I would prefer to make the best effort to eliminate confirmation dialogs and make actions reversible, but in the case of drastic actions, like disk format and file delete, popping a confirmation dialog seems to be fine, in fact users may expect it.


On the other hand, I tend to agree with him that error dialogs should be entirely removed from the product. Although they make sense to a programmer, I think they tend to make little sense to the end user. I've seen many users getting very frustrated because their workflow is hampered when they appear. Cooper notes that while they are used to signal that something went wrong with the code, the user tends to interpret them as “I’ve done something wrong.”  When users are told that they are wrong repeatedly, they start to hate your product. I've been playing with some of the Mac UI recently and have been surprised to see they seem to be constantly eating their exceptions. Sure, problems occur - they just don't surface to the user.


I got a lot of value out of reading the About Face and would highly recommend it. In the next post, I will discuss how we have iterated on Camano and the  Test Runner UI in an Agile development process to produce the design that we have today.