Android: A good UI is a familiar UI

Acer are heavily promoting their notebooks with Windows 7 and Android pre-installed, and it got me thinking. I have been ‘teaching’ my students UI design. These young people are not programmers; they are doing an ICT course which (as...

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Acer are heavily promoting their notebooks with Windows 7 and Android pre-installed, and it got me thinking.

I have been ‘teaching’ my students UI design. These young people are not programmers; they are doing an ICT course which (as many of you will know) is closely linked to Business Studies in as much as a lot of it is about the application of ICT in the workplace. Within this context consideration of the ‘user’ and their skill set often comes into the foreground... hence the UI stuff.

It has been quite interesting (for me) as I tend to design UIs that I can create (using Java or Gambas) with my limited skills. However, having once been bitten by designing and having enthusiastic approval for a client’s web site which I created using drawing packages (Inkscape and Gimp) then struggling to realise it, I am now very wary of unfettered creativity!

Luckily this is not real life so we were free to be creative.

The first thing I learnt from my classes was that their graphics package skills are pretty much confined to mastery of MS Paint. This is not surprising as ‘software’ in schools ICT amounts to MS Office (Word, Excel, Publisher, Powerpoint and Access) + Paint.

The second thing I learnt was that a ‘good’ UI in their eyes was a ‘familiar UI’.

The third thing I learnt was ‘easy to use’ (i.e. for users of limited ability and minimal training) was the POS touch screen used in MacDonald’s et al which uses real pictures (of a burger)

The fourth thing I learnt was that some one else’s ‘icons’, when not familiar, are far from intuitive aids; rather, being symbolic abstractions, they can be very cryptic indeed.

To summarise:

  1. Simple navigation has few or no menu sub-trees
  2. Ease of use binds tightly to familiar use
  3. Icons should be big, as near to a picture as they can be and on the desktop

Ok, to all you designers out there this is blindingly obvious. Not apparently to some, however.

I am familiar with the lay out of all Windows OSes, Linux (Gnome and KDE) Mac OSx, Android and Sugar. I switch between all of these regularly (except Sugar) and have learnt to try and avoid Windows Vista, Mac OSx and anything KDE.

I don’t know, there is just something baffling about them at some point or another...Linux KDE being (to me) so cryptic and needing such a level of familiarisation (which I won’t give it) as to be nearly unusable.

You can analyse the above as you like, but familiarity is the key ingredient and the design of the UI merely affects the ‘mean time to competence’ through repeated use. Time is short.

I was musing on the above and the failure of Linux to capitalise on its early lead in the netbook stakes when I noticed that Acer’s Christmas netbook offerings are dual boot Windows 7 and Android!

Then the penny dropped. Google’s Android is as familiar, more familiar, to young people as is Windows 7 (don’t forget they were brought up on XP). The Android powered phones (in this College) far out-number the iPhones.

Google has played a blinder, no-one freaks at a Slate computer or a netbook running Android as they feel they know it already. Big picture icons and almost no sub menus on the scrolling screens ticks all the boxes.

Sounds a bit like Windows 3.1, someone tell KDE.

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