UI is hard

I assume that a lot of the people that are reading this blog know that we are developing a new service around data visualization for small and medium sized businesses. It’s really exciting for us. Especially because, as a lot of you know, I recently exited a company and this is a product that I really wish I would have had. It would have made a big difference in a lot of my decision making. But that’s not what this post is about. This is about designing a user interface (UI). And it’s really hard.

We are completely self funding the company. At least until we have it out there and can see what our plans to market nationally will be. We have a great team and the base product is coming along really well. We are able to accomplish all the things we wanted and it’s exciting to watch it come together. But we’ve hit a bit of a wall and that wall is the UI. The product is a completely web based service but the UI is so much more than just building web pages. We sit and have meetings about how to make the site intuitive, but half way through the meeting we realize we are developing for ourselves, not for the potentially less tech savvy client that may be using it. How do you put yourself in someone else’s head? That’s a really difficult thing to accomplish when you are the one developing the product. It’s so easy just to say to yourself “Oh, they’ll understand what we mean by that”.

Keeping things consistent is a lot harder than it sounds as well. The more customizable an application is, the more options it has to offer the user, the more complicated it becomes. That is a balance that is giving us a real challenge. Do you put a menu at the same place across multiple pages for consistency, even if on some pages it would make sense to move it to a different location?

In the end, we are doing a couple of different things to help us. We have a graphic designer working with us to develop the overall look and feel of the site, without worrying about what is actually doable or easily implementable from a technical perspective. And then we are interviewing people to take that design and implement it (to the extent that it is practical to do so). Our team will then tie all that in to the back end that is already pretty sound.

We’re hoping that this is the right take for us. We’re viewing this as a living application. It will constantly be changed and improved. When it becomes practical, we’ll certainly have to bring this expertise on staff. Until then, we’ll continue to work through the process. I’m definitely a person that learns from my failures. Misjudging the importance and difficulty of this part is definitely a mistake on my part. But I have definitely learned that this is not something I should have underestimated and will work to make sure that this is a big part of the conversation in future projects and updates.

For anyone out there that is interested, here are a couple resources that we are using to work our way through developing the UI for our services.

http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2009/01/19/12-useful-techniques-for-good-user-interface-design-in-web-applications/

http://www.ambysoft.com/essays/userInterfaceDesign.html

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