There is almost nothing more frustrating than being lost in translation. Whether you're trying to order a cup of coffee in France or trying to decide on the location of your navigation on your web site, the problem is the same: it's hard to accomplish unless you speak the language.
What do we mean when we say "user interface design"? Nobody can argue that the "user experience" of any site is an important part of the planning process, but sometimes, "UI" and "UX" can feel like buzzwords, and project teams and their clients can get lost in the jargon. If everyone has a common goal of building a website that works for its specific users, can't we find some common language so that we all know what we're talking about?
http://www.sylvantech.com/~talin/projects/ui_design.html gives an excellent overview of some important principles of user experience design, as does the book Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug. But, it's not long before you get into some jargon here. If you're used to it, you'll be happily swimming in user experience waters in no time. But if you're not, you may find yourself a little frustrated.
At an upcoming session at CapitalCamp in Washington, DC, I'll be giving a session to help establish a common frame of reference for discussions about user interfaces and usability. The goal is to break down some of jargon and help clients and development teams speak a common language. But until then, I thought I'd start with offering a few quick translations, to get us started in this direction, in case you're navigating the user experience world for the first time. Ready?
"Metaphor." Translation: "make things make sense to humans." Email developers and email client designers have made excellent use of the metaphor of mail and the postal system. When you send an email (see, even the name of it refers to the metaphor), you most often create a message in the same way you'd compose a letter. You address it first at the top of the page, then let people know what it's about in the subject line, then compose or write the message, then close it with your signature, and finally, click the "send" button, just as you would compose and send a paper-letter. The metaphor of "mail" didn't have to be used for electronic messaging, but it certainly helps us understand how that functionality works, and how to use it effectively. That way, even your grandparents can use it. To send you irrelevant forwards.
"Feature exposure." Translation: "make things easy to find." Whether it's a drop-down menu or exposed navigation bar, you need to make it easy for your user to find the functions available to them. The goal with feature exposure is to make functionality discoverable to your user, so that someone can walk up to your application not knowing anything about it, and can discover the many different things that it can do just by interacting with your interface.
"Safety" Translation: "make it difficult for the user to break things." When a new person is learning how to use your application, they are going to poke around and click things that they may not understand. You want to design your interface so they can do this without worrying that they are going to break something, or irreparably delete some important piece of data. Put warnings in appropriate places and wherever possible, make actions reversible.
Whether you're "just visiting" in the area of user experience design, or looking for a full immersion experience, developers, designers, themers, wireframers, project analysts, managers, and clients all have to talk about user experience at some point during a project's lifecycle. It's time to cut the jargon, build some common vocabulary, and come up with some useful tools for navigating this thing together.