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When Apples Go Bad – UI Design and Usability

Apple released the latest upgrade of their operating system (iOS5) a couple of weeks ago. This release gave us happy new features—notifications banner! to-do list! iMessage! multiple routes on maps!—as well as the Why-would-you-do-that-to-us features—if I can’t put Newsstand in a folder, at least let me put all my news apps in it.

As reviews of iOS5’s functionality and features came in over the course of the day, I was intrigued by what Chris Rawson of TUAW had to say about one of the apps subjected to a significant overhaul, for better and worse—the music app. While some of the changes are basically cosmetic, some actually affect usability.

For example, let’s say you want to set your music to repeat or shuffle. In iOS4, your controls looked like this if they were inactive:

The repeat symbol on the left and shuffle symbol on the right would then turn blue when they were active, like this:

This has changed in iOS5. Now, if those features are inactive, they have a gradient white/silver/grey thing going on:

Then, when they’re active, they turn white:

I guess that, technically speaking, there is a difference between on/off here, but it’s not readily apparent. Nor is it necessarily intuitive. I realize that I may occasionally be on the slow side of things, but I wasn’t sure which was active and which was not until I set the repeat to single repeat and could compare the difference between active/inactive:

Of course, if you go to catalog view, the distinctions are more apparent:

Oh, but did I mention that in this view white is now the inactive state instead of the active state? Sure, it may be intuitive for this view, but it’s inconsistent across the platform.

So what does this have to do with us? I think there’s a lot that we can learn from the design decisions others make and how they impact the user. As we design our own training, particularly our self-guided web-based training, we need to look at how decisions we make in the interface help or hinder the learner:

  • How do learners know what is clickable and what is not?
  • Is it intuitive or does it have to be explained?
  • Are active and inactive objects treated consistently within an activity? Across different activities?

We need to consider what learners expect to find. One of the projects I’m working on is a new corporate training curriculum for an existing client. Because the subject is new, we’ve had some leeway in revamping the interface. Even so, we had to keep in mind some usability questions:

  • How much of the interface can we change and have it maintain the client’s instructional branding?
  • How do learners expect navigation and interactive features to function? Which can we change? Which can we move?

Finally, as we begin to take web based training into module learning with smart phones and tablet computers, there are other UI questions we will need to ask ourselves:

  • What interactivity can we maintain with more limited screen real estate?
  • How will fat fingers affect the learner’s interaction with the course?
  • If the learning device can change between landscape and portrait orientations, how can we maintain consistency in the placement and use of interactive elements?

We understand that content is king, particularly in corporate training. The design of the user interface can sometimes be downplayed and pushed off to the side or even outright ignored. However, regardless of how brilliant our content and amazing our organization and flawless our verbiage, if the learner gets frustrated trying to access it, we still haven’t done our job. Something as simple as consistent, intuitive interaction may make the difference between a user tuning out of a course or successfully meeting its objectives.

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