Designing User Interfaces

Ted Roche
Blackstone Incorporated
(617) 641-0400


Why are some programs easy to use and others just plain frustrating? An overview of principles involved in good user interface design and a review of some of the better (and worse) implementations drawn from examples in Visual FoxPro, Windows and Microsoft Office. Includes a checklist of good principles to follow and some tests to run to verify you have created a good design. Discussion will focus on the "right" user interface design for VFP applications.


Whatís a User Interface?

Who Cares?

Why Bother?


Give you questions, not answers

Discuss UI Principles / Standards

Identify common UI mistakes

Expose hotly debated issues

UI Principles





UI Standards

CUA / OSF / X / OS/2-PM

Windows (NT) 3.1

Windows 95

Windows 95 Drill-down

Thinner fonts

WhatsThis? Help

Context (rightclick) menus

Conceptual Issues

Sovereign vs. Transient Applications

††††† Sovereign applications: full screen, tools at hand, no nonsense. Note gadgets on every window frame, multiple toolbars, dense menu

Transient application: Simpler frame, almost clownish buttons, simple menu


Implementation Model vs. Physical Model

Documents vs. Dialogs

UI Mistakes

Highlights - two are not always better than one

Button labels

Improper controls

Poorly designed graphics

Hot Topics

Input: proportional or ugly?

Modal or Non-Modal? (MDI/SDI)

Standard or Interesting?


UIs should invisibly help users do their job

Make it clear, explain it, help, donít hinder

Where to get more information


Professional Associations

Consulting services



The File Manager's Rename Dialog - why two text boxes?

Another FileMan gaff: where is the highlight?

Click on the light once, and the control gets focus, twice to activate it.

Who pushed all the buttons in? And how do you get them to come out!!!???

Make toolbar buttons distinctive, not descriptive.

Word does a much better job, with distinct color, images and white space

But completely blows it with the File/Open All-In-One File Management, network snooping,
Boolean search-building, dialog-and-toolbar(complete with drop-down menu)complex here.


Here are a few books I think are worth reviewing, browsing or studying.

Cooper, Alan, About Face: The Essentials of User Interface Design, 1995, IDG Books, ISBN 1-56884-322-4. My favorite book of 1995. Outrageous and astute, a sharp review of what's good and what's dumb about user interface design. Covers both Windows 3.x and the new Win95 shell. Very pleasant reading.

Granor, Tamar and Ted Roche, Hackers Guide to Visual FoxPro 3.0, 1995, Addison-Wesley, ISBN 0-201-48379-3. As well as being my favorite 3.x book to date, this book has some good (and points out some very bad) examples of user interface design, especially in the MessageBox() section. A good overall reference for intermediate to advanced Visual FoxPro users.

Laurel, Brenda, ed., The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design, 1990, Addison-Wesley, ISBN 0-201-51797-3. An excellent and thought provoking collection of essays from nearly everyone else on this list as well as Jean-Louis Gassťe, Timothy Leary, Nicolas Negroponte and many others.

Microsoft, The Windows Interface Guidelines for Software Design, Microsoft Press, 1995, ISBN 1-55615-679-0. The explicit description of how Microsoft intended their interface to work, updated to cover Windows 95 and NT. While the actual implementation of their applications, and therefore yours, sometimes differ from the standard, this is an excellent starting point for discussions on "How should I representÖ"

Norman, Donald, The Design of Everyday Things, Doubleday, 1988, ISBN 0-385-26774-6. This book was originally published as The Psychology of Everyday Things, and thus became an excellent example of user interfaces (in this case, the title) and people's reactions to it. It was a flop, until it was renamed to its present title, thereupon becoming a best-seller. While little is devoted to computers specifically, the examples illustrate why devices work for people - or don't.

Parker, Roger, Looking Good In Print, Ventana Press, 1988, ISBN 0-940087-05-7. Not at all about video user interfaces, this book focuses on the paper user interface of the printed word. An excellent overview of what and why fonts are, how a person perceives and digests a page, and ideas for better layout. While focused on the desktop publishing industry, this book covers many principles which come into play when we design a screen.

Shneiderman, Ben, Designing the User Interface, Addison-Wesley, 1987, ISBN 0-201-16505-8. One of the original texts in the field, still very applicable in theory even if somewhat dated in terms of examples.

Tognazzini, Bruce, TOG on Interface, Addison-Wesley, 1992, ISBN 0-201-60842-1. Formerly the User Interface Evangelist at Apple Computer, Tognazzini's engaging style make this book a pleasure to read.

Tufte, Edward, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 1983 and Envisioning Information, 1990, both from Graphics Press. Great coffee-table picture books, these two texts provide some ideas (and excellent samples) of how and why and how powerfully the proper use of graphics can convey information.