Who nailed the principles of great UI design? Microsoft, that's who

A 12-year-old MSDN article still rings true -- and provides excellent guidance when JavaScript may be giving us too much to play with

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That was then...
A decade or so is an eternity when it comes to technology. So how pertinent is IUI today? The limitations of the Internet 12 years ago were informing Web design decisions, and those decisions drew heavily upon the concepts of IUI. IUI fit naturally with slow Internet connections.

The Internet isn't slow anymore, and single-page Web applications are springing up left and right thanks to advances in browser technology and the widespread adoption of JavaScript for more than just frilly enhancements. Now that the limitations have dissolved, is IUI even worth practicing anymore?

Absolutely. For those developing desktop software, IUI is just as pertinent as it was when the article was released. For Web developers, IUI is crucial to remember. Now that Web technology has progressed so much, the distinction between "it can happen" and "it should happen" can easily be forgotten.

IUI is particularly relevant for mobile developers because real estate is precious on smaller screens. The purpose of each screen on a mobile device needs to be very concise -- clearly labeled, and often inline with a single navigation button (if needed) and a maximum of one supporting action button.

Who nailed the principles of great UI design? Microsoft, that's who
More actions can be placed at the bottom within a button bar, or available just off screen through a hamburger button.
Who nailed the principles of great UI design? Microsoft, that's who
Who nailed the principles of great UI design? Microsoft, that's who
A well-designed screen should not require scrolling except in specific cases, such as the necessary display of a long list of related details.
Who nailed the principles of great UI design? Microsoft, that's who

Although IUI is still pertinent today, it's not a complete solution. It provides a great foundation for design, but problems arise when you want to give users more power. Take Photoshop as an example of one of the most deductive interfaces in widespread use. It's filled with toolbars that contain countless unlabeled icons, and it's notoriously arduous to learn. Users of Photoshop have accepted interface struggles in return for eventual speed and power.

What if the learning process were smoother? A screen-by-screen interface walking a user through customizing a color gradient would be great for beginning users. That same "gradient wizard" would just get in the way of that same user once the workflow had been mastered. The ultimate solution is a user interface that adapts, gauging user experience and adjusting the interface and user experience accordingly. Some preliminary attempts at this, such as progressive reduction, will help to advance our understanding of how to measure user experience (and experience decay) and how to adapt our interfaces to account for it.

Regardless of whether IUI is right for the current project, your whole team should be familiar with it. It embodies basic UX principles that help everyone from project managers to developers make better decisions. Even though "Microsoft Inductive User Interface Guidelines" was published more than a decade ago, spend the time to go through it. Understand the problems identified and the approaches to solve those problems. Your users will thank you.

Jonathan Freeman is an associate developer at Open Software Integrators. He joined OSI in 2011 and specializes in font-end development and UI design.

This article, "Who nailed the principles of great UI design? Microsoft, that's who," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Keep up on the latest developments in application development and read more of Andrew Oliver's Strategic Developer blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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