Minimal Interfaces are easier to learn

In what may come as no surprise, my tests with users confirmed the intuition that a less complicated interface was easier to use. In all cases, the users went for either search or category navigation as their first operation, and interfaces with more elements on the starting screen that were not directly related to those functions were harder to use.

Ubuntu Software Center was considered by most of the subjects who tried it to be the most clean, attractive, and clearly laid out of the package managers. None of the users needed to take time to figure out the interface before they could begin using it. In the screen-shot, almost all of the interface elements support either search or category browsing.

Initial screen of Software Center

Initial screen of Software Center

Roughly half of users had to take some time to explore the interface of Synaptic Package Manager before they were confident enough to attempt using it. The other half immediately went to the search bar or the categories. Synaptic has several interface elements on the starting screen that distracted users.

The worst offender was the buttons in the lower-left, under the category list. These change the way that applications are categorised, but only the default, “Sections,” made sense for the users. Users who changed it to something else either from curiosity or accidentally, got confused and had difficulty getting back to the categories that made sense to them.

Initial screen of Synaptic Package Manager

Initial screen of Synaptic Package Manager

Puppy Package Manager also fared poorly. Chief complaints included the amount of text and reading involved in Puppy Package Manager’s various screens, and the single-click behavior of the package manager’s UI controls. Most users were surprised when clicking in what appeared to be a selection box started the installation process rather than merely selecting an element.

“Every time I click on something, something happens, and I don’t want it to.”

“It has way too much text that I will never read.”

“This is ugly, it’s not intuitive. There is a lot of buttons, a lot of windows.”

Initial screen of Puppy Package Manager

Initial screen of Puppy Package Manager

QuickPET calls packages “Pets” instead of “Packages”, “Applications”, or “Apps”. Although users understood what a “Pet” was, they considered the non-standard terminology unnecessary. QuickPET’s categorisation system was also criticised as having unclear organisation and ambiguous category titles. Despite these shortcomings, QuickPET does present the user with only relevant UI elements, and was fairly intuitive for the users despite it’s other shortcomings.

“The pet thing is weird… it’s just weird.”

“I don’t like calling applications pets.”

“Too cute.”

Initial screen of QuickPET

Initial screen of QuickPET

The design implications are clear, but not new: removing unnecessary design elements makes applications easier to learn. This matches the common intuition – but intuition is often incorrect in designing for usability. Having data to back it up puts us in a better position to make informed designs.

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