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Posts Tagged ‘simplicity’

An Interface Should Make You Happy

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

An interface should make you happy.  This actually generalizes to any tool: a tool should not just do the job it is meant to do–a tool should also be a joy to use.

For those who are not computer-savvy, an interface is a fancy way of describing your interaction with a computer.  In the case of WritAnon, the interface between you and the computers that WritAnon is hosted on is the WritAnon website.  In other words, you can think of WritAnon’s website as an interface.

When I hold a hammer in my hand, I sometimes marvel at its simplicity–the best hammers have a comfortable grip, one end for driving nails into wood, and another end for removing them.  I can pick up any hammer, and use it to accomplish the task at hand (assuming, of course, that the task at hand requires a hammer).  The simplicity of a hammer makes me happy.

A book, similarly, is another well designed tool.  I can pick up any book, and, assuming I know the language, sit down and start reading.  The cover helps protect the contents of the book from the elements, and every book in the same language works the same way.  An aside:  This is in reference to books written in languages that read from right to left, such as Arabic, instead of English, which is read from left to right. The simplicity of a book makes me happy.

In order to improve a website (or story or other tool that needs to improve), you need to take some time and identify:

  • what you’re unhappy with, and
  • why it makes you unhappy

Often, you will find that you’re unhappy with the simplicity of your solution–you just feel like it shouldn’t be that hard.

When I first released WritAnon on the world, I felt there was something just a little off about the interface.  For those who are new, or may not quite remember the original interface, the site layout looked something like this:

Original WritAnon Layout

As a craftsman, I’m particular about the way that my creations look. The colors were fine, but the layout felt old and overly intrusive.  The purple sidebar took up too much space, leaving less room for what you want to read…the blog posts.  Frankly, the original layout was also difficult to maintain, using tables and lots of other website hacks that I’m not quite so proud of.

When I first learned HTML, the sidebar on the left was the method of choice for most sites–you always knew where to look.  There are still thousands (millions?) of sites continuing to use this layout, and there’s no real reason for them not to–it’s an accepted convention, and it works.

However, I’ve always felt that the sidebar navigation is a waste of space…when you get down below the main menus, the space seems to serve no purpose, and could be much better used with additional content.

Every time I used the site, something about the layout nagged at me.  I finally decided on Thursday morning that the WritAnon layout needed to change.  I was tired of being bothered by the interface–I wasn’t sure exactly what about it made me unhappy, but it had been bothering me for weeks.

At some point, you have to understand the tradeoff between the time it will take to improve an aspect of a website, and balance that against the amount of bother you will have if you don’t fix it.  When it comes to building something, whether it’s a website, a cabinet, or a bookshelf, you’re likely to be with the item for a long period of time (at least, someone is).   When this is true, even a small amount of bother can build up over time–because of this, redesigning the WritAnon site layout made a lot of sense.

So, when I redesigned the layout of the site, I had two primary goals:

  1. Eliminate the sidebar.
  2. Maintain a simple, easy to use interface that keeps focus on the content.

The main challenge I had was the use of the sub-menus for each option.  In the sidebar, this is intuitive–you simply tab over your submenu option, and you’ve now visually grouped your menus and submenus.

I decided to solve this problem by including the submenus underneath the main options.  This seemed reasonably intuitive, and, from the discussions I’ve had with others so far, it sounds like it is.

After a few hours of work, I was finally satisfied with the layout.  Now, instead of the nagging feeling each time I used the interface, I feel happy. With luck, you also feel a little happier each time you click on something here at WritAnon.  The simplicity of the new WritAnon layout makes me happy.

When editing your work, look for things that nag at you…something that feels a little off.  If you leave these details, no matter how small, you will always be bothered by the fact you didn’t take the time to fix it–even if you weren’t sure exactly what the problem was.  Like a well designed tool, whenever you look at something you’ve worked on, it should always make you happy.

A quick musical interlude before the site updates:

Bobby McFerrin – Don’t Worry Be Happy
Uploaded by jpdc11. – Watch more music videos, in HD!

Always strive to be pleased with your own work. Don’t be afraid to be too critical of any aspect–by being critical, you can focus on what needs to be improved, and, with any luck, result in a better, stronger story or article.

Site updates this week:

  • The site layout has been revamped (in case that wasn’t clear in the blog entry above)
  • New featured inspirational story by William Marmont:  Writer’s Block and Ways Around It
  • New Stories section, featuring some stories written by the WritAnon team.  New stories will be added soon, so check back for more!
  • Changed Twitter and Reddit links in the blog, inspirational, and story areas to use icons from those sites.
  • Facebook comments are now an option for all inspirational stories and for all stories in the new section.
  • Additional featured items are now available in the WritAnon Store!

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