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Your user interface defines a conversation – does it always make sense?

By Saeed Khan

man vs machineWhat is the difference between these two sentences?

  1. He eats, shoots and leaves.
  2. He eats shoots and leaves.

The first describes a gunman, most likely in a dining establishment. The second describes a vegetarian, most likely a panda bear. The comma in the first sentence makes a huge difference in the meaning, context etc.

Now think about user interfaces.  Do inconsistencies or other issues change the user experience?

Everyone knows what a user interface is, right? At least I hope everyone reading this blog knows. 🙂

Wikipedia defines user interface as:

“The user interface, in the industrial design field of human–machine interaction, is the space where interactions between humans and machines occur. The goal of this interaction is effective operation and control of the machine on the user’s end, and feedback from the machine, which aids the operator in making operational decisions.”

To and fro with the machine

Note that the user interface enables a bi-directional interaction, controlling the machine AND getting feedback from it.

That interaction is, for all intents and purposes, a conversation, in a language that you’ve created for your application or product.

And just to be clear, I’m not using the word “conversation” to describe a conversational or voice interface like Siri. The conversation (bi-directional information exchange) exists in any user interface – character, graphical, gesture, voice, haptic etc.

Every dialog, every menu, every gesture, every action is part of the language that defines that conversation between user and machine. How well is it defined? Like the two sentences at the top of this article, do small issues in the interface change significantly change how users perceive the application?

The question to ask yourself is whether the language of that conversation — the vocabulary, the meanings, the constructs, the responses — is constructive or not. A constructive conversation is not just random talk. It’s communication with a specific intent or goal in mind.  Think about what is required to have a good conversation. The exchange between the parties needs to have some specific qualities. I call them the 4Cs of Conversation. They are:

  • consistency
  • completeness
  • conciseness
  • clarity

Think about those 4 Cs, and then think about any interface you’ve used or worked on.

Consistency – Do the words you use in your interface have consistent meanings?

e.g. does the word “Home” mean the same thing throughout, or are there different “Home” pages depending on the context?

Completeness – Can the user perform all the task they need within the interface, or are there steps that must be done external to the tool?

e.g. can the user email information from within the application or do they have to save the information and then switch to a mail client and send the email?

Does the system provide all the information needed for the user to complete their task.

e.g. do error messages/dialog give the user the information they need to address the problem or do they have to guess what to do?

Conciseness – Can the user perform each task with a minimum of effort (clicks, selects, checks, confirmations etc.)?

e.g. Can a drop-down menu of choices be replaced with a set of icons for direct selection? A menu selection takes at least two actions, while an icon click takes 1. A small difference until you multiply it by the number of times each user will select from the menu vs. the icons.

Clarity –  Is each possible action easily revealed and understood?

e.g. in a touch interface, can a user easily identify all the available gestures and their associated actions without a lot of guess work?

How do you evaluate the consistency, completeness etc. of your interfaces?

How do you analyze the conversation your users are having with your products and applications to ensure they are clear, concise etc?


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About the Author

Saeed Khan is a founder and Managing Editor of On Product Management, and has worked for the last 20 years in high-technology companies building and managing market leading products. He also speaks regularly at events on the topic of product management and product leadership. You can contact him via Twitter @saeedwkhan or via the Contact Us page on this blog.