What is user interface, who is responsible and what factors impact a sites UI

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This is a cross posting of a piece I wrote for a usability reading course I worked on last semester. I enjoyed writing and thinking about usability. I though I might keep the ideas flowing by continuing to write about it on my personal site. I’ll add and hopefully improve upon several of the posts I did for the course. Feel free to correct, comment or question anything you find in these post. We are all student when it comes to the emerging technologies of the web.

Main points to discuss:

  • Websites and Intranets
  • Web Designers, Web Developers, Web Masters
  • Contentment Management Systems

What is user interface (UI)

Computer programs, online applications, and websites all have an interface that allows the user to interact with the machine. The space where the user interacts with the machine is the user interface. The reason it is important to think about the user interface is because it has a direct impact on the user’s experience of your product. It doesn’t matter if your product is a physical item you are trying to sell through your website, or if it is simply the service your department provides a larger organization. What the user is supposed to get from your online application (website) is your product.

The users experience is greater than just the sum of the interface elements. The user interface is also closely related to the information architecture (IA) of the website. The IA can be thought of as an information systems framework, or perhaps Keith LaFerriere (2008) puts it better when he tells clients that a websites IA provides “the baseline, or foundation, for a solid site structure.” The information architecture of an application or online resource should be based on the strategic concept that has precipitated its creation. The audience, the programming requirements, security concerns, perceived importance of various elements (such as the call to action) are just a few of the factors that will impact how the interface is designed.

To ensure that there is a clear focus of study, the majority of the dialog in this course site will be dedicated to subject of user interface (UI). The discussion of UI, however, can’s really be properly addressed without bringing in facets of the user experience or the information architecture, so these topics will also be discussed as required.

Web Designers, Web Developers, Web Masters

There seems to be an ever increasing number of job titles to describe the various aspects of the creation and maintenance of online systems and applications. As the importance of smooth online interactions with customers increases, so does the demand than ever for professionals in this area. It is quite common for one professional to have a skill set that crosses the boundaries of many of these positions but for the sake of putting some structure into the terms, I have generally found that the positions break down like this:

Web Designers: Specialize in the graphical elements of a website. They are generally skilled in design software, such as Photoshop, and Illustrator. They usually bring to the table CSS and HTML skills, as well as an eye for design. The front-end programming language JavaScript (and it’s libraries JQuery, etc) can be very useful for Web Designers, and they may have developed this skill set.

Web Developers: Specialize in the programming aspects of the website. These individuals often cite specific programming languages they are proficient in, such as python, php, perl. They usually have some skill in databases, such as MySQL and will likely bring some knowledge of XML, or JSON. Often web developers have a back ground in computer science, but there are many skilled self taught developers out there.

Web Master: This position seems to have fallen out of the common terminology, likely because it sounds dated, much like the term information highway. It is more likely known today as Web Content Specialist or something along the lines of eMarkeing professional. This position is concerned with the day to day operation of the site, keeping the site relevant and ensuring that it serves as the ideal vehicle for communication and promotion. This position can bring a variety of skills to bear, but should likely have at least and understanding of HTML, CSS and keep current with marketing trends and the needs of the organization they are serving.

A lighter look at the differences between UX and UI.

Contentment Management Systems

A final point I would like to touch on is the role of content management systems (CMS) in user interface. Often with large scale websites and intranets the organization opts to deploy a CMS to make the addition, removal and maintenance of content easier. These systems can either be build inhouse, or as is often the case are an adaption of an existing product. There are hundreds of open source CMS options, and many proprietary options as well. WordPress, Drupal, Joomla are some of the big names in the open source, CMS world. CMS needs be considered in a discussion of UI, because these systems can dictate the information architecture of the site. If a CMS is deployed without careful consideration of how the organization intends to communicate through the internet, it can create headaches for the implementation of the user interface.

Recommended Readings:

Allen, B., & Buie, E. (January, 2002). What’s in a Word? The Semantics of Usability. Interactions New York-, 17-21. DOI: 10.1145/505103.505111

Sherwin, D. (November, 2009). Can You Say That in English? Explaining UX Research to Clients. A List Apart Magazine. http://www.alistapart.com/articles/can-you-say-that-in-english-explaining-ux-research-to-clients/

Laferriere, K. (December, 2008). Flexible Fuel: Educating the Client on IA. A List Apart Magazine.http://www.alistapart.com/articles/flexiblefueleducatingtheclientonia

Borsky, S. (August, 2011) The Difference Between UI and UX. Design Shack.

http://designshack.net/articles/graphics/the-difference-between-ui-and-ux/

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