UI Design: What It Is and Why It Is Important for Website Success
The user interface is present in every consumer or business product.
Creating an item or service that effectively satisfies a need or want is critical for a successful production. However, how users perceive and interact with a device is equally vital.
Two practices sit at the heart of both of these dilemmas: user experience and user interface. Both must be designed alongside one another to ensure harmony within the final product.
By first understanding UI, we can begin to explore the definition of UI design, its core guidelines, and how UI designers effectively build user-friendly interfaces for everyone.
What is a User Interface?
A user interface is how a person can interact with a product or service. It’s how we can enter inputs or commands, which the device then uses to yield a response.
There are four primary types of user interface:
A. Command Line Interface
The Command Line interface involves opening a command prompt to enter specific commands. When entered correctly, the device reads the request and returns additional prompts or the requested file.
Command lines are effectively obsolete in consumer products. As technology improved, designers were able to create new interfaces that were much more intuitive and user-friendly.
To try out a command line interface, open the Run command on your Windows PC. Then type ‘calc’ and hit enter. The command prompt reads the request and opens the calculator app on your computer.
B. Menu-Driven Interface
The menu-driven interface allows users to follow a series of menu commands as opposed to entering them freely into a command prompt.
The designer of the product understands the purpose of the product, and, therefore, designs a menu interface around the different options available to the user. They click on one menu prompt and discover new menu options based on their choice.
A menu-driven interface is not dissimilar to how we interact with technology or software now. Most products now utilize a GUI (which we’ll go over next), while this style simply presents users with easy-to-follow options.
Examples of a menu-driven machines are ATMs or money kiosks you can still find in grocery stores, malls, or gas stations.
C. Graphical User Interface
A graphical user interface is what designers use in everyday computers and devices. Rather than confining users to a list of set commands, they can freely interact with all aspects of the device through graphical displays.
You’re utilizing a GUI right now to read this content. A UI designer carefully planned an interface that allowed you to intuitively move from startup to browser, to this URL. You also utilized interfaces along the way by using Google search and this website.
GUIs are the standard. They’re used in computers, phones, gaming consoles, televisions, and much more. It allows you to easily identify other software or content and provides a pain-free way to access any of it.
D. Touchscreen Graphical User Interface
A touchscreen GUI is markedly similar to a standard GUI. What fundamentally changes the experience is the manner of user input.
For decades, people have acclimated themselves to the nuances of the mouse and keyboard. It’s still the preferred way for many to interact with a GUI for their everyday work or personal hobbies.
However, touchscreen functionality exists and is not going away. Touchscreen input often provides a better UI due to its speed, responsiveness, and natural tendency to reduce human error.
But, tapping a screen comes with its nuances that UI designers must face. This involves:
- Reading screen touches
- Responding to differences between tap and hold
- Haptic (physical feedback)
- New graphical icons and navigation methods
No matter which interface is used, a UI designer has to provide consumers with an ideal experience.
Next, let’s take a look at UI design itself to gain a better understanding of what UI designers handle regularly.
What is UI Design?
UI design is the process of styling an interface in a way that’s aesthetically pleasing to view.
With that in mind, UI includes visual elements including typography, color palette, menu styles, and content presentation. UI isn’t just a matter of taste. It can have a direct positive or negative impact on a user’s ability to use or enjoy the website correctly.
It’s here where many readers find themselves confusing UI with UX, or the user experience. To help you better understand, let’s define UX next.
UI vs UX – How They Differ and Overlap?
While UI is how a user accesses and perceives a product, the UX is what the product provides for the entire customer journey as a whole.
The UX is how effective a product is at understanding the consumer and providing an effective solution for specific pain points. If a person can take advantage of your product and has an easy time doing so, you are providing a quality user experience.
Let’s use a modern iPhone device as an example.
Defining the UX starts with understanding the purpose of the device. It exists to be all-in-one handheld hardware that handles phone calls, SMS, emails, web browsing, task management, gaming, and much more. It aims to provide users with app solutions that effectively satisfy their every need.
The UX is the device’s ability to provide this. It includes all aspects of their journey with the product including the inner tech, processing power, applications, settings, and ease of use. A great UX also recognizes where consumers may face issues and rapidly provides solutions to reduce or eliminate errors.
The UI of the iPhone is what users experience when interacting with the device. It includes its menu designs, graphical icons, fonts, text color, and touch responsiveness. It’s a quality UI due to its intuitive nature, while also granting users the ability to modify the interface for improved accessibility.
While they are different concepts, they overlap frequently in the goal of satisfying users. The UX comes first and is guided by a firm understanding of your core audience. The UI serves to offer users the perfect design and presentation, meshing your needs with proven design concepts.
UI Design Guidelines
Creating designs for your brand’s website can be subjective. But, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t consistent rules for you to follow when building an effective interface.
Thanks to the constant feedback loop present between the user experience and user interface, we can measure what’s most important when designing your website.
Those guidelines include the following concepts:
1. Quality UI Provides Clarity and Visibility
Many site owners make the mistake of overdoing it with their new site.
They become focused on adding new graphics, features, and content without considering whether a user can consume it all. These cluttered designs make it difficult for the user to engage with the site.
Quality UI designs do more with less. When you think of top-trending websites or household technology, you’ll notice one thing – simplicity.
Clean, minimalistic UI designs deliver all of the information a user needs to know. It does not obscure a user’s ability to understand the interface, nor does it overwhelm information.
It demonstrates the confidence that it understands the end-user and presents a UI that enables a quality UX. The user is able can access the feature they need without any hassle.
2. Great UI Provides User Freedom
By freedom, we mean that UI should allow users to explore freely and customize their experience. They continue navigating within the capabilities of the site but are allowed to take different pathways based on their needs.
Consider how your experience is when you interact with menu-driven interfaces. You know exactly what you need, but you have no choice but to sit through additional menus to get to your chosen destination. If the user makes an error during menu selection, they may have to repeat the process. This is an unappealing, frustrating UI.
Quality UI design recognizes that users within a given audience have their differences. There isn’t necessarily a right way for them to use the site. Instead, the UI attempts to understand all of the different use cases and provides dynamic options based on previous actions.
3. UI Should Be Accessible
Accessibility is becoming increasingly important in the development of technology.
Creators are realizing that their design approach often focuses on your average, able-bodied individual. However, many people have restrictions or disabilities that prevent them from engaging with a UI as intended.
Accessibility problems manifest in a variety of ways. If your UI relies on communicating feedback with color, color-blinded users are disadvantaged.
If your presentation relies on image and video, the blind and hard-of-hearing are unable to engage with your website.
Offering realistic UI solutions to such individuals is not an easy task. Tech experts are assuredly already exploring the challenges some disadvantaged people may face as we switch more to touch screen technology. Voice options serve as a viable solution in some cases.
Providing a quality UI that includes accessibility goes back to the golden rule – understand your audience. If you’re aware that users may face these setbacks with your UI, you must consider solutions in your overall UI design.
4. Smart Content Delivery
Personalized content is becoming increasingly important as businesses shift online.
The people using your website services are at different stages of their journey. If someone is brand-new, they’ll want to learn more about your brand, the benefits offered, and other details that might push them toward signing up.
An active registered user does not need that information. They’re already familiar with your website and use it for a specific purpose. Showing them the same content that you would show to a brand-new customer leads to a bad user experience.
Consider customizing your user interface to allow for a more personalized experience. This is a staple for online services such as social media platforms, CRMs, SaaS, and many others. Those sites leave cookies in the browser allowing your platform to recognize returning visitors.
Instead of seeing the same content as everyone else, the returning user gets greeted by name. They see the information that’s immediately relevant to their needs and can quickly access any tools or apps to get started.
Personalization is not just important for quality UI, it’s now mandatory for successful service, sales, and digital marketing.
5. Clear Feedback & Communication
Every website needs a method of communicating critical information to the user.
We take quality UI for granted in every device we use. A mouse cursor defaults to an arrow, showing users specifically where they’re pointing at any given time.
When you click on an app, the cursor shifts to an hourglass. We know this as the symbol for loading.
These types of UI feedback allow users to understand the results of their actions. Conversely, if the cursor didn’t switch to an hourglass, we would know to try again. If the problem persists, there’s likely an error they need to investigate.
There are other methods of communicating feedback to users based on your goals. For example, smartphones require a way of distinguishing a single touch from a sustained press. The latter usually trigger haptic feedback or a physical sensation to communicate success.
Quality UI design communicates when actions work and also when errors occur. You can improve our UI further by communicating exact errors and directing users to quick solutions.
The UI means more than being just aesthetically pleasing. It effectively communicates everything the user needs to know before they take their next action.
6. Be Consistent in Your UI Design
Consistency is important, whether it’s within the same product or across multiple.
The more a user interacts with your interface, the more they will learn the language. They understand all of the nuances, what indicators represent, and how to move from place to place.
Do not upset that experience by making the interface different in other places. Otherwise, the user now is tasked with learning a new set of rules, making your interface both frustrating and confusing. There’s no consistency in what the user can expect.
The rule of consistency should persist across devices. We can continue our previous iPhone example to see how Apple achieves this.
Whether you’re using an iPhone, an iPad, or a Mac, the interfaces are consistent. The first two are virtually identical, allowing anyone to easily pick one up if they’re familiar with the other. The Mac has some necessary differences, but the process of understanding and navigating iOS is effectively the same.
Apple’s approach to UI design is what makes more of its user base loyal. If someone uses an iPhone, there’s a natural incentive to choose their other devices thanks to its consistent UI and UX. Not only do users understand how to use the tech, but they can also jump from device to device with zero issues.
7. Allow Users to Correct and Avoid Mistakes
Everyone’s been there. You’re working on an important document. A distraction comes along and you accidentally misclick and delete critical information. It’s a terrible feeling and the consequences can be huge.
That’s why designers consider these occurrences by offering the ability to prevent errors. Seldom are users stuck dealing with one-off mistakes with most modern tech.
Instead, services generally allow you to undo, edit, or reverse your last action. This can help you correct typos, restore deleted files, or undo a saved change.
Some UI designers go a step further and offer warnings before allowing the action to occur. Their feedback loop might show that users frequently make a specific mistake. Thus, they add a confirmation menu to confirm your intention.
The UI Design Process for a User-Friendly Interface
1. Research Your Target Demographic
The UI design process begins early.
When businesspeople start a company, the goal is to provide some product or service that directly addresses an audience’s need(s). However, determining what that offering will be relying on performing effective customer research.
Let’s say that a marketing agency wants to build an analytics tracking tool for its users. Its audience can range from new entrepreneurs to seasoned business owners. When we research these types of people, we can make some early conclusions about what our service needs:
- It should allow for a variety of analytics integrations
- The setup process should be easy for newcomers
- It should clearly define metrics and KPIs for each platform
- It should be customizable and allow users to choose their highlights
- It should protect the security of their accounts
There’s more to include, but this is a great starting point.
Each bullet details something that our team needs to keep in mind when designing both the UX and UI. Our UX team is focusing on how to make sure users can perform the necessary actions with ease. The UI team needs to design the layout, menus, and presentations in a way that makes it intuitive for users to engage.
Doing this early research phase, reach out to your target audience and any existing customers. This is not an opportunity to sell something. Rather, you should entirely focus on their needs and what they hope to gain out of using your proposed website. Let them guide you on what your team needs to achieve and what you need to avoid with the final product.
2. Perform a Competitor Analysis
The chances are that you’re not alone in your new business endeavor. Whatever you’re proposing with your site, there’s already another business doing the same or similar.
Creators need to be vigilant in understanding what the competition provides. With a live, working website, they’ve already had the opportunity to research, test, and refine various iterations of what you may be trying to achieve.
Analyzing your competitors will help your designers understand three critical details:
- Which features do you need to have to be competitive?
- Which problems are present in their design, so that you can avoid them?
- What can we do with our website to distinguish ourselves and/or outdo the competition?
As a minimum benchmark, your design needs to meet the industry standard. If your UI is lacking basic essential features, there’s nothing compelling users to choose you over a competitor.
Of course, your service will not be perfect on the first draft. Even industry-leading sites go through various drafts, prototypes, and extensive user testing to achieve a desirable result. Get ahead of the game by scouting the competition and understanding the assignment before you put pen to paper.
3. Use a Style Guide (or Create One)
Every brand should have a style guide. This is a designer’s bible so that they know exactly what decisions to make within set brand guidelines.
A style guide is important to help make your site’s interface consistent with your entire brand image. This is important when considering UI design concepts such as:
- Logo implementation
This can at least serve as a firm starting point for your designers when crafting the site’s UI. From there, you can make future style choices for things such as sizing, icons, and customization features that are consistent with the overall image.
Working within set guidelines helps ensure that your team works toward a clearly-defined vision. You don’t want your prototype to look alien to your brand, lest you create a cognitive disconnect between yourself and your audience.
4. Start Sketching Your Initial Concepts
Every great design starts with putting pencil to paper. However, thanks to modern tech, there are a ton of tools and services to help make sketching easier.
Sketch, an aptly-named service allows teams to collaborate on UI sketch projects. It allows you to experiment with containers, drag-and-drop images, resize on the fly, and much more. Your teammates can see the changes in real-time, leave comments, or reach out directly with instructions.
Your sketches should be the earliest ideas of what your UI should look like. Start to play with the different ways you can display necessary information to your users. Once you have one (or a few) that you like, you can begin the process of wireframing.
5. Create Lo-Fi Wireframes
A wireframe is a blueprint of what your user interface will look like on the final website product.
When creating a wireframe, your primary goal is to create a clear visualization of what the user will see. You also want to map out how users will navigate one from one menu to another. Sharing this vision with the team will help to highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of the design.
The purpose of keeping your wireframes low-fidelity early on is to avoid wasting time on design elements prematurely. These lo-fi designs are sometimes called “gray boxes,” and are meant to show the basic format. You don’t need to worry about adding the right text or images to create the full interface just yet.
As you become more confident in your UI design choices, you might start adding more elements that will be present in the final design. These are known as mid-fidelity and high-fidelity wireframes, with each becoming more detailed than the last.
If you already started sketching in Sketch, you can continue your progress from wireframe to prototype. However, other excellent tools exist for different skill levels including:
6. Move Toward Working Prototypes
Once you understand your user flow and solidify the UI design choices, start building a working prototype.
At this point, you’ve already settled on what the interface should look like to viewers. Now, your team needs to assemble a working version of the interface for further testing. Your goal is to establish a respectable version of the website you can present to your team and early testers.
Likely, your prototype will not resemble the final site. You’re putting an early version of the product into outside hands. This new perspective will help you make continued changes to the style, colors, menus, text, and other presentation aspects. It can also help highlight opportunities to create a more optimized user flow.
After implementing continued feedback, you’ll inevitably find yourself with your first mockup. This is a high-fidelity version of your final product and a close approximation of what will hit store shelves.
Quality UI Design Tips for Your Website
Your company’s website can’t just look good.
Its clean, minimalistic design needs to enable your visitors to have a quality experience when viewing your content. It should demonstrate a deep understanding of your audience so that you can provide them with what they need without delay.
Maintain clarity and consistency in all design aspects. Give users the freedom to explore other pages, while maintaining an intuitive sense of direction throughout their journey.
Above all else, test design changes and get feedback from your visitors. Because they’re the ones engaging with your site regularly, they’ll be the ones to spot room for improvement in either the design or potential feature additions.
Your website is never done. But, with a strong approach to your UI design, you’ll consistently produce a product that’s worth being at the top of the rankings.