When Good UI Isn't the Goal

I'm a game-lover. Card games, board games, party games: love, love, love. But I'm also a rule-follower. I want to win the game, but I want to have done it by mastering the domain, rather than breaking the parameters. I don't know how often you find creatives that are also avid rule-followers; perhaps it's not the most lauded trait. But I'll tell you what, it keeps my clients happy. You want me to stick to a budget: check. You want to meet a deadline: check. You want a disruptive and possibly even irksome interface: *record scratch*. What?!

We all have clients with naive or subjective asks. And when we're on our game, we can talk them out of those. But twice in my career I have been set on my laurels by a well-defended argument for "bad UI".

Killin' 'em with words

How many times have you commended the ghost of Steve Jobs while trying to convince your client that less (neigh, even NO) words is better on their presentation slides? You have countless TED talks to back up your argument. And those TED talks are posted on the most worldwide of platforms, YouTube, with viewership in the millions. Often these high-profile examples will persuade your speaker to move most of their verbiage to the slide notes and de-clutter their presentation. But not always...

Quick sidebar, because some of you are scratching your heads right now trying to figure out how slide design falls into the realm of User Interface design. Usually we think of slides as a set of visual props for a speaker, with no real user interaction. Definitely, no user control. As the audience we're hostage to what the speaker wants to show us and when. However, sometimes slides are created as more than just visual props.

Sometimes, they are documentation of an important, perhaps even legal, topic. Slides might be chosen in lieu of a document because they're easier to create/edit for those without publishing software/experience. And they can double for use with presentations.

For example, you might have a corporate lawyer who needs to explain the intricacies of new healthcare laws to the business' employees. She may need to travel around and give talks to all of these folks, but she also needs to supply them with the documentation in a digestible format. Add to that, she may want to edit the file on the fly, because each stop she makes brings up great questions worth addressing.

In this case, the slides (as documentation) become necessarily verbose. These legal topics can't be summed up with a funny cat pic. They need to be clear, but also painfully specific. The difference between an "is" and a "was" is grounds for a lawsuit.

Similarly, I've had clients who only present via web conference. And in the circumstances where the web conferences are mandatory (not something the audience is vying and registering to watch), the attention rate is pretty darn low.

I don't know about you, but I've definitely been on a mandatory web conference before with the sound muted and unrelated work on another screen. Shame, shame. I know. But it's the truth, and I'm not alone. And the speakers know this.

However the content is important, and it's their job to get it to the masses. So they spell it all out on the slides and supply an attachment after the conference is over. Due diligence: check.

The interesting part is that it seems to work. Frequently audience members actually hold on to the slides and thumb through them on their own time. Some of the best, most invested questions come from their audience 48 hours after the attachment has been sent out. But to accomplish this, the slides have to be able to stand on their own, without any verbal support.

I know what you're thinking here: "What about a audio or visual recording of the web conference?" Well, then you're back to the presentation requiring a full hour (or whatever the length is) of the audience's time. If you just give them the slides, they can quickly skim through, for the info they need.

Similarly, you can imagine an American-based CEO who needs to share a State-of-the-Company update with his Asian employees. The employees probably have at least some English-fluency, but part of that population may still be intimidated by verbal discourse. With written communications, they can take their time parsing translations. So the CEO could do a spoken presentation and then supply the slides for his employees to dive into for clarity.

You don't have to comment or email me to explain that there are other ways to share these documents. I do know this, but I also know that clients don't want to be forced to create two versions of the same slides, a webpage or an interactive PDF, if what they really want is easy, editable, one-size-fits-all. Remember who's paying the bills here.

So, at the end of the day, you forget about dynamic, full-screen visuals. You toss the eye-catching, high-contrast, one-word slides out the window. And you succumb to the world of double-columned text-slides. You make improvements by reducing the overall text span. Creating more slides with smaller chunks of information. And using pull-outs. But you give the client something you're inner UI spidey-senses hate: a dense set of slides that their audience (now, your users) will be navigating through to better understand whatever it is they missed in the real presentation.

And here's the clincher: they will better understand. Better than they would if they were only supplied with 13 beautiful, image-only slides, for sure.

keeping 'em clicking

The e-learning segment is new territory for me. I love the chance to continue growing as a designer, but there have definitely been a handful of "Huh?" moments along the way.

One of the most obvious was a discussion about the number of clicks to journey through a course. My preference when designing web pages has always been fewer clicks. Give the user a clear path to success; don't confused them with miscellaneous distractions. Definitely don't send them off-path with external links and do make it abundantly apparent how they can try/buy/ask/accomplish whatever it is they came to your site for.

However, when I attempted to pull a bunch of standard click-interactions out of an e-learning course, the instructional designer had something to say about that.

Have you ever had to complete an e-learning course? Even if you haven't been required by an employer, you may have had to do one for the DMV for a traffic violation. Or maybe even a quick tutorial when you first start up a new piece of electronics. Either way, chances are you treated the course/tutorial like it was one of those crazy, long Apple software contracts, and you tried to skip all the way to the "I Accept" to get out of there as quickly as possible.

And how irritated where you when you were given a warning pop-up that indicated you missed a required checkbox before you can accept (erm...escape)? Well, therein lies the trick. When you went back to look for that box, you made darn sure you read what it said, right? You didn't read the 12 paragraphs of legal text, but you read that one sentence next to the checkbox, because it disrupted your quick exodus of page, and you needed to know why.

Well, that's sorta the instructional designer's thought-process. See, as a society, we don't really like to be bored. This is why succinct websites work well: quick success for short attention spans. It's also why the really primo e-learning courses are so high-tech (think full video games or VR simulations). But corporate training courses don't often come with big-production budgets and they do often come with a lot of legal compliance information that has to be clearly spelled out (see previous section, if you got bored and skipped ahead). This could translate to being boring. It could, if not done properly, look a lot like that 12-paragraph Apple contract.

So adding mandatory interactions (clicks) to the content accomplishes two things: 1) it engages the user, so they're not lulled to sleep by the sometimes dry content and 2) it creates a disruption to any "skip-to-the-end" tendencies. You can't complete the course until you've completed all of the interactions. And each interaction engages you with the most important bits of the training. Sort of like those magazine articles you "read" by scanning the pull-quotes and looking at the pictures.

At the end of the day, you have to set aside the desire to be your e-learners' friend: the person who streamlines the content down to minimal clicks and maximum success. And you have to actually be disruptive. Almost parental. "No, Johnny, you didn't finish you're peas, you can't be done with dinner." Because the companies you're making these courses for actually need their employees to get it. And the sometimes the only way to get Johnny to eat his peas is to remind him there's no escape until he does.

Happy creating!

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