Sinan Kurtulmuş

Commonly Neglected Dangers in Modern User Interface Design

Sinan Kurtulmuş

February, 2021

User interfaces (UI) have evolved rapidly over the years. While different design trends have come and gone, graphical user interfaces (GUI) have largely prevailed where the end-user is concerned. There are numerous issues with how user interfaces are often designed in this day and age.

The Mountain and the Molehill

WALL-E
Image: Lenin Estrada
Personal computers and mobile electronic devices have become widely available in the recent years, so much so that a great deal of excitement has been generated in the transhumanist circles, centered around the ideas of biotechnological enhancement and advanced artificial intelligence research. While I do not subscribe to that worldview (or think that it is philosophically sound), I acknowledge the technological progress and its social relevance. Digital devices provide great amounts of processing power, and have the potential to help humans perform arduous tasks easily and efficiently, when coupled with good software. With that being said, most of the time, cognitive friction occurs when the user tries to interface with the technology.

UI design is a practically unsolved problem, and it should be treated as such. This is reflected in the fact that while the availability of many information technologies has greatly increased, many individuals can not make use of these technologies, simply because they can not interface with them. One could argue that the difficult process of making these technologies widely available has been completed, while a failure has occurred in the easier task of making somewhat usable and coherent interfaces to go with them. In reality, digital design often fails to overcome social, demographic and linguistic barriers, when the designer, for various reasons, fails to put conscious effort into making sure that it does not. Recent design trends have amplified this effect, and widened the gaps between individuals along various axes in a technologically advanced society. As a result, people who are elderly, impoverished or handicapped often have troubles when given the chance to use digital interfaces.

Text Is Universal and Good

One of the defining characteristics of modern UI design seems to be the scarcity of text. The assumption is that the user does not want to read text, nor does he/she have the time to do so. This is strongly related to the fact that within the context of a modern graphical user interface, text usually means bad news. Therefore, text is often omitted from the design, unless it is an indispensable part of the content itself. However, this also means that important information about the functionality of the program, or the device, is also hidden away from the user, which makes troubleshooting more difficult. Error messages are less verbose than ever. Even URLs regarded as too long to be tolerated, and some web browsers now display shortened versions of URLs by default.

Computer Operator
Image: US - NARA
Text does not always have to be bad news. If it did, the entire history of humanity would be very different. Text, as a medium of communication, is ubiquitous, and much easier to translate compared to symbolic icons, design elements, and various other representations. On the other hand, modern design often makes no sense to people, unless they are digital natives or they have invested a considerable amount of time in learning the arbitrary and ever-changing design languages of the current time. In most cases, the lack of textual interfaces, proper documentation, and useful error messages prevent people from learning about the basic or advanced uses of the technology in their hands. Moreover, not every program has to have a graphical user interface; sometimes, command-line text interfaces that provide a standardized way of interaction to the user are the simplest, the easiest, and the best design choice. Many details depend on the specific functionalities and use cases of the device/program. However, having more usability and more information are always good, and text is a good way to achieve that.

Modern Design Hurts Usability

Graphical interfaces also have their uses, and they can greatly facilitate certain tasks. Video, image and various kinds of multimedia manipulation operations in particular usually benefit from a robust and structured workflow provided by graphical user interfaces. Some digital interfaces are skeuomorphic, meaning that they are deliberately designed to look almost exactly like an original object - in this case, analogous devices - in order to make them more understandable, while others with different use cases are heavily stylized and much more abstract, especially when there is no non-digital precedent. For example, music software (digital synthesizers, drum machines, guitar amplifiers...) is usually skeuomophic in design. Video editing software sometimes features cues of skeuomorphism, as well as some other aspects which had to be designed from scratch, since there was no reference point in non-digital video editing practices. On the other hand, contemporary e-commerce and social media software are heavily influenced by the flat design trend, and make heavy use of oversimplified abstractions, elements lacking dimensional depth, and the omission of essential information, in order to achieve more modern/futuristic look and feel.

Design
Simplicity in design is good, but it only works when the program itself is also simple. In most cases, skeuomorphic design and dimensional depth are two of the most important factors in GUI design that can aid the potential user in understanding the interface, simply because they are relatable. They are also helpful in laying out the hierarchical structure of the program, making the information architecture clearer, and guiding the user in between operations. The fact that they are barely used in popular interface designs nowadays begs the question for whom designers are creating their designs. It is crucial to remember that the primary focus in design should be usability, not artistic beauty as defined by contemporary standards.

Non-Content Is a Real Problem

Another factor that reduces accessibility is the amount of content that is unessential or unrelated. This is especially common in web pages and web applications. Many modern websites are remarkably heavy, since they written in web frameworks, are integrated with social media, advertisement, and tracker services, and run a lot of server-side and client-side code. As a result of this, people who are in low-bandwidth situations or on low-end devices either have problems when accessing websites, applications, and services or they are completely unable to use them. Unnecessary content also makes it harder for people with disabilities to navigate through the information, as common solutions like text-to-speech for severe visual impairment are rendered less useful. This kind of non-content accumulation can often be avoided if the designer carefully assesses which tools exactly are required for the task at hand, and, whenever possible, avoids falling back to heavier solutions.

In a world where, most unfortunately, the shift towards cloud-based solutions is occurring at a fast pace, and the demand for general purpose computers with decent processing capabilities is expected to decline, the current design practices are sure to cause problems at an increasing rate. One partial remedy is to write and use software that can run locally whenever possible, instead of building a behemoth of a program for a simple task like word processing or instant messaging, and moving it to the cloud because it is too heavy for a personal computer. However, where web pages are concerned, reducing the amount of unessential data as much as possible is of paramount importance in order to make sites more accessible in general.

Conclusion

Digital user interface design is a challenging task that involves a fair amount of problem-solving. It is also an area of work where talented designers can demonstrate their artistic creativities or improve their craft through imitation. On the other hand, bad design introduces the risk of hindering the use of available technologies, and excluding a number of people, which has unwanted social consequences. Contemporary trends in digital industries reflect some characteristics of poor design that reduces functionality, usability and accessibility. Reverting to older practices in some areas may ameliorate the effects of modern design languages and trends.