User Interfaces: Conformation vs Creativity

Microsoft and Apple are recognized stalwarts in the HCI and design fields. Yet I’ve noticed they take a distinctly different approach when it comes to designing user interfaces. While both have usability guidelines for UI designers (Apple, Microsoft), they seem to have a distinctly different approach to UI design.

(Note: I am no expert on any of these, and neither am I well-versed in the guidelines I mentioned, nor have I ever used a Mac long). The difference is immediately noticeable when you look at their flagship OSs: Windows XP, while being rich and colorful out of the box, manages to come across as increasingly dumbed-down and staid. All applications look and feel exactly the same. The UI guidelines emphasize conformance more than they do solutions to problems. The good thing about this is that the user is constantly reassured, never does he have to learn another user-interface model. Learning curve for familiar applications is almost zero, and even for applications which do complex tasks like say, 3D Studio Max, menus and widgets remain the same.

Contrast with the Apple Mac OSX: the guidelines seem to serve as very broad directions to the UI developer. Individual applications are left free to come up with their user interfaces. Anyone who looked at a Mac though and contrasted it with an XP interface will be blown away first by the sheer aesthetics of the computer: it’s beautiful, and pleasing, and that certainly doesn’t hurt a user reward model. The important fact I’d like to stress though is that rather than conformance, creativity seems to have been given veto.

Is a learning curve for applications bad? Leave aside computers for a moment. Just imagine an average human being going through his life. He learns to manipulate electronics from as simple as a watch to as complex as well.. a computer ;-), but since we left that aside.. a cellphone. Every one of these devices, from a book, to your toilet flush, to a TV remote to anything has a distinct and different user interface. And we seem to grasp everything either intuitively or with a small learning curve. Every time I encounter a new tap design (and once, I had to push one button and twist it to get the thing going) I learn a new user-interface. While examples such as these might be an argument in favor of conformance, it does demonstrate the versatality of humans when it comes to exploring and understanding novel user interfaces. But, excellently designed user-interfaces – like say the Apple Ipod – is intuitively usable once the learning curve is done. It’s almost like riding a bicycle in some cases: you never forget. It’s a testament perhaps that the most loved music player for Windows ignores UI conformance completely.

How does all of this help my Mom who forgets how to browse every now and then just because I rearranged the order of icons on my desktop? Is non-conformance to any UI model the answer? Hardly. The balance struck by Microsoft (or at least, illustrated by their applications) seems to be incorrect however. Word doesn’t need such a confusing plethora of icons when it advertises itself as a word processor (They seem to have learnt that).

More intelligent and well-versed people than me have thought about this for long. (As an aside, when has that stopped me? :-D) But I’d always be a designer leaning a bit towards the creative end of the spectrum. If only because if ever I learn to design well (and perhaps break the UI model in the process) I can be quite sure my users will understand it, and love the UI for it.

2 responses

  1. Yeah. I do agree. Microsoft has given a bit too much importance to the “conformance” thing. From my limited experience, I believe the general public do like things to look different. Remember my old e-Diary? When it had that plain windows look, nobody ever cared about it except some of my schoolmates (yeah you too 😉 Then one day I decided to experiment and gave it some skins, and lo .. it clicked.. and most of the comments I had recieved then, said something like “its so different. not that plain everyday windows look”. hehe 😉

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