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Not Just a Pretty Interface: Why Looks Matter for Software Developers

By October 21, 2013Article

Many software vendors have a great product. But without an easy-to-use interface, busy people will never make time to discover its advantages. 
Pretty software isn’t just a fad or a way to disguise lack of functionality. It can also yield major benefits for you and your clients. 
Many usability experts advise that the graphical user interface (GUI), the visual layer that provides interaction with your software, should be designed before any coding takes place. 
“When you’re working on end-user software, and it doesn’t matter if you’re working on a Web app, adding a feature to an existing application, or working on a plug-in for some other application, you need to design the UI first.” — Rick Schaut, principle software developer at Microsoft Office for Mac. 
Simply having the tools available somewhere in your application is no longer enough for many users. The look of a software package is becoming increasingly important in the purchasing decision process. 
Form over function 
Commentators occasionally bemoan their belief that buyers are being blinded by shiny buttons and thereby ignoring the technical benefits hidden behind your interface. This obsession with appearance means they are settling for inferior products. 
“Good design is an extremely rare and valuable skill, and we’d all rather have something beautiful, all else being equal. Rather it had always been a strength of the tech world that it was driven by a ruthless Darwinian survival of the fittest, and it’s somewhat depressing to see it succumb to survival of the best looking.” — Alexis Dormandy, founder of LoveThis and former director at Virgin Group. 
But the truth is that design is of great importance in making software actually usable. And even more importantly, clean design makes communication of information quick and efficient. Customers can access the data they need, when they need it, how they choose with minimal effort.Half of Europeans surveyed said they waste 10 minutes each day dealing with computer and software problems.

  • 24 percent of Britons said they waste 30 minutes each day — equivalent to eight days each year. ( survey 2010) 

Graphical User Interface design is not a case of “form over function,” but “less is more.” Consumer devices like the iPhone are often criticized by technical experts for being too “restrictive and simplistic.” 
However, Apple’s focus on simple design has seen its smartphone and tablets move from consumer pockets and into a dominant position on the corporate network. A simple interface is no barrier to productivity, giving lie to the “form over function” argument. 
“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” — Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Inc. 
Pleasant aesthetics break the ice 
The simple truth is that if your software doesn’t look good, new customers are unlikely to be interested. 
In an age where appearances are critical to capturing the attention of prospects, your GUI design could be what convinces them to stop at your trade show stand or website. Once you capture their attention, it becomes much easier to then demonstrate the underlying functionality that delivers the data they need. 
More is not better 
If your software platform is mature, new modules and enhancements can simply be bolted into the existing interface. After all, many of these new developments will be as a direct result of requests from clients themselves. 
However you may find that a new competitor comes up with a product that becomes a runaway success, despite being functionally inferior to your own. The difference? Sometimes nothing more than an intuitive interface that helps the user be more productive with less. 
“40 percent of users said they do not want flashy [software] updates and new features but a computer that ‘just works’.” — survey2010. 
The developer’s dilemma 
After spending months or years working on the behind-the-scenes code, developers become so used to working with the product that it becomes difficult to try and imagine the experience of a first-time user. If you are used to how the system works, surely your users will get used to it too? And the accompanying user manual will take care of any quirks, right? 
The problem is that consumer devices like the iPhone have changed the game completely:

  • Interfaces are simple and easy to use.
  • Manuals are redundant; software clearly guides you through common tasks.
  • If the software performs badly or is too confusing user uptake may be lower than expected. Some software projects report employee engagement levels of just over 50 percent because of low take-up. 

And most users bring a similar approach to computer software into the workplace. The visual interface is therefore critical to the ongoing success of your software, even after the initial sale. 
Adding visual data display and refining your software interface adds value to the user experience and increases the likelihood of users renewing their annual maintenance agreement. And just because it looks better doesn’t mean that your software becomes nothing more than a pretty interface. 
Adam Wick is business development manager at Dynistics. Its primary aim is to improve reporting for organizations of all sizes.

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