UI Simplification = Confusion

Individual UI Simplification - Collective Confusion

Success and failure of recent operating systems (mobile or desktop) are quite often attributed to the user interface and the "experience" it provides. Simple interfaces are sought after. Interfaces that even a child can understand. While this has created beautiful individual applications (Flipboard, Facebook Timeline, TweetDeck, Ribbon UI) that are easier use, the cost of switching between apps becomes tremendous. I'm posting this to see if anyone has the same feelings that I do.

Muscle Memory

I am fairly certain that I could get into a 1957 Ford Thunderbird and drive it just like I could get into any car produced 20 years from now and drive it (if I can convince the computer to relinquish control). This is possible because of the standard steering wheel, brake, gas combination that is found in every car. There are slight variations (third pedal, drive selector on floor) and incremental improvements (paddle shifters, power steering) but the core actions required to operate the vehicle remain unchanged.
When I look at something like the Ribbon UI the change is frightening. When I first started the application it took me 3-4 minutes to realize that the Office Icon was a button hiding my print, save and open options. After using the Ribbon UI for a few weeks I once again able to quickly move around the interface and discover where options and tools were. It was great and I enjoyed the clean look of the interface. The problem is I eventually realized that all this time spent learning this interface was for only 5-6 applications provided by Microsoft Office and potentially future Microsoft applications.

The standard C menubar is found in a majority of the programs on all three of the desktop Operating Systems (Mac, Linux, Windows). This standard UI allowed me to switch between different applications fairly quickly. An example would be recently a coworker started using NetBeans as their IDE and said out loud "oops I accidentally lost my project window". Without hesitation and before he could look I said "Go to the Window menubar item". I've never used NetBeans but I knew what to do without even looking at the screen. Now if every software (across OS’s) was to use the Ribbon Interface with somewhat standard tabs I would be content in not trying to memorize two different layouts.

Literacy is not declining

App designers seem to think that the literacy rate is declining. The use of icons without text makes sense with standard icons that can’t be interpreted in multiple ways: Home, Trash, Folders, Settings (Gear), Save (Floppy Disk), Print (printer).

Above we have 3 icons which represent the same thing. The first two look like a document with both pictures and text. It’s easy to tell that they represent a newspaper so this icon is talking about some sort of news. The third icon which I believe many of you would already know is from Instagram. It shows a heart within a talk bubble. My head is immediately thinking phonesex or some type of skype sex service. Sadly there is no text below to confirm my disgusting assumptions, instead I click on it and find out that this icon also represents news.

Before launching into my criticisms of Google I applaud their effort of standardizing all of their services to create a cohesive theme with large buttons easily touched on mobile devices. My complaints are the ambiguous icons that don’t have text.

From the left the first three icons are pretty standard although they could be misinterpreted. There is a sharing/friends icon, some type of folder icon and then a trash icon. The third icon is confusing because it looks to be an eyeball. In a majority of programs an open eye is a visible object while a closed eye is a hidden object. There are also a minority of applications which use the eyeball as a preview icon. Most applications use a document with a magnifying glass for a preview icon. The only way to determine the effect of the icon is to click on it or to hover the mouse over the top (which is impossible on a touch screen).

The confusion could easily be eliminated if they added a small amount of text to explain the icon, just like they do for google plus. Even though everyone knows what an icon of a house is; placing a label there doesn’t hurt anything.


Maybe I was too young to remember a similar battle before the era of File, Edit, Tools, Windows, Help. It could be that history is just repeating itself. There are some promising things that are out there. Many iOS apps use a settings gear in the upper left hand corner to denote the settings. Android was promising with their dedicated menu button though I am wary of where that is heading in future releases.

The multitudes of UI layouts, symbols and interactions (between the 40 or so regular applications that I use) leave me constantly relearning interfaces. The simplicity and beauty of these individual apps have left my brain jumbled and confused when constantly switching between them.

I can at least count on one website who has managed to remain incredibly simple for the past decade. Craigslist seems to be a website that people of all ages can use due to its simplicity, for now.