I recently picked up a great book about technical communication and UI design by Everett McKay. It’s called UI Is Communication: How To Design Intuitive, User-Centered Interfaces by Focusing on Effective Communication. McKay defines the concept of UI so elegantly that I had to share this great resource for UX designers, web developers, and technical communicators alike: “a user interface is essentially a conversation between users and a product to perform tasks that achieve users’ goals.” (p. 3).
Simple, but powerful, Everett’s books proceeds to lay out 10 “top principles” for designing user interfaces that range from how to explain tasks to users to the qualitative feel every UI should strive for.
In honor of this book, here are my own 10 principles for how technical communicators and designers can work together to create great UIs.
- Build cross-functional teams, not cross-purposeful teams. A huge buzzword in the world of design right now, being cross-functional simply means paying attention to the expertise of your co-workers and how they can help you design better. A lot of times, in my personal experience, there are a few dominant types of expertise in every team, however.
- Build design teams that communicate effectively. When cross-functionality fails, nine times out of ten it’s because communication has failed. If the developer isn’t listening, or isn’t talking, to the UI person, then the design will not look right. If the opposite is true, then the design won’t perform right. If the technical communicator isn’t consulted, then the design will probably not meet user’s needs.
- “UI is not UX“… except when it is. A common call that I mostly agree with, what McKay’s book gets at is that UI is the way users understand UX. Just try to explain UX to someone who knows nothing about it without making a single reference to any UI.
- Every design team should have a technical communicator and someone who understands UI, but these are rarely the same person. Technical communicators are writers and user researchers by trade. UI folks often understand design in a very visual way. You need both for great UI.
- If UI is a conversation, you need someone who can speak the user’s language. No offense to UI folks, but this is often the technical communicator’s forte. Technical communicators are, by nature, translators and explainers. If users don’t know how to join the conversation of your design, then they can’t use it. Period.
- Obey the rules of good conversation when designing UI. All this is to say: when you start a conversation, you don’t want to begin by making the other person feel dumb. If you have really great, bleeding-edge UI that doesn’t fit the mental model of your users, then you’re speaking Greek to them (unless they’re Greek, then you’re speaking… Farsi).
- “Documentation is going away”… except when users need it. I hear designers talk about the demise of documentation constantly. If that’s the case, I ask them, then why are sites like iFixit, wikiHow, and YouTube channels that feature how tos getting so many pageviews? Rather than outsourcing your design’s documentation to other websites, why not build it into your design? For that, you need a good communicator.
- Sometimes the best UI choice is the simplest one, sometimes not. The main reason designers cite for the demise of documentation is that designs are getting more simple and intuitive as UI evolves. My counter to this is: simple and intuitive to who? If you’re not communicating directly with your users, early and often, you’re not having a conversation.
- Design for people, but which people? I also hear a lot of people claiming their design is universal. Universal design is a set of principles for ensuring accessibility, not a way to reach every user where they live. A universal design is a good design, not necessarily a targeted design. Every UI communicates specific things to specific people. That’s how a conversation works. If you’re not talking to specific people, you may not be talking to anyone outside of your design team.
- Crafting a great UI means joining the culture of your users. All this is to say: when in Rome. You need someone to go out and talk to real, live people about your design on a regular basis. This person needs to be good at talking to people, good at translating what they say to your design team, and good at understanding design principles. Whatever you call them, without this person your UI will never reach the level of a good conversation with your users.