The user, not your user interface, is the star of the show

As programmers and designers, it’s easy to get really invested in our work.  This is great if it helps us do a good job, but the temptation is to think that we and our work are the most important things.  That’s not true – it’s the user.

When I was at school and college, I helped a little with the lights for plays.  I remember after one performance I bumped into one of my friends who’d watched it but didn’t know I was doing the lights.  I asked her what she thought of the lighting, and she was a bit puzzled and politely said she thought they were OK.  While this was a bit deflating at the time, I hope I’ve learned a useful lesson from it.

The point of lighting is to help the actors tell the story.  If the audience notices the lights, you as a lighting person have probably failed.  This is because any attention the audience is paying to the lights they can’t pay to the actors.  The actors are the star of the show, not the lighting (or the scenery).

Woman standing on a dark stage, lit by a single spotlight above
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

You might think that this photo is exactly the opposite of the point I’m trying to illustrate, but I think not (as well as it being a cool image).  The woman is highlighted – marked out as the only thing to pay attention to.  At the same time, she’s a bit mysterious and concealed.  The tension between the two makes you wonder: Who is she?  What is she about to do?  If you scroll this page so that the light is chopped off the top of the image, you wouldn’t notice the light’s absence, because your attention is already focused on the woman, which is the whole point of the lighting.

It’s a bit humbling, but the user probably doesn’t care about your website or your app.  They do care about booking train tickets, sending a message to a friend, playing some music or whatever else it is they’re trying to do.  When you think about the tasks for today, how often do you think: I need to spend 45 minutes in my email app, and I really want to spend a good half hour copying and pasting between my browser and my contacts list… ? Users will appreciate user interfaces that don’t annoy them, that don’t force them to think about the interface and so distract them from accomplishing the task at hand.

Some people suggest that a user interface should actively delight the user, which implies that the interface should play a more active role than simply being a means to an end.  I think this is a great thing to aim for, but after all the user-interface-getting-in-the-way-and-being-annoying has been dealt with first.  Unfortunately, my experience is that too many user interfaces fail at the first job, and so the elements that are trying to delight look either less impressive or definitely naff.

So how do you get out of the user’s way?  I think that a big part of this is: know your user and what they’re trying to do.  It’s not rocket science, but often neglected.

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