Friday, February 04, 2011

UI Design and Choice

Good UI design is easy to use, among other things. But easy of use is often in conflict with the amount of choice that is given to the user.

More choice requires more effort from the user. Imagine walking into a super market where they sell a hundred different varieties of bread. Which one do you buy? Instead of being empowering, this existence of choice can be intimidating. The user is likely to just pick up a loaf at random and walk away with a feeling of not having chosen the best option or not having chosen at all.

But having choice is good too. Everyone likes versatile tools. Wouldn't it be a joy to discover that you blender can also juice your oranges?

Designers of computer interfaces have to balance these two concerns. Most go either one way or another. The Linux desktop environments, Gnome and KDE, are almost diametrically opposite examples. Gnome gives the users as little choice as possible and believes in having "good defaults" that the user need not change. Gnome is known to have actually reduced the number of things the user could do over time. KDE on the other hand throws every possible option at the user, resulting in monstrocities like this.

To compound the problem even further, different use cases need different levels of choice. As I've said earlier, if I just want to want a video, a play pause button and a seek bar are enough. If I'm writing code, I need all sorts of sophisticated options.

I'm not sure what the solution to this conundrum is. Most good designs solve it by limiting their target audience and figuring out what is best for them.


  1. The solution is to use a hierarchical structure that follows a sort of Huffman code optimizing the number of clicks.

    That is, all options should be available; the most commonly used options should be a single click away; somewhat less commonly used options 2 clicks away; and so on.

  2. @Armchair Guy: That's a very interesting idea. Is there some software where this has been adopted?

  3. @Wanderlust:

    I don't know of specific examples, but I think it's a well-understood UI design principle that fewer clicks are better. (Just an impression; I'm not affiliated with UI design).

    Certainly it would be better than the unfortunate Gnome (and even KDE to a lesser extent) practice of removing useful features!