Designing with the Mind in Mind, a Simple Guide to Understanding User Interface Design Guideline

Posted on by Ben Rothke

johnsonNeurologists and brain scientists are in agreement that in truth, we know very little about how the human brain works.  In the just released second edition of Designing with the Mind in Mind, a Simple Guide to Understanding User Interface Design Guidelines, author and UI expert Jeff Johnson provides a fascinating introduction to the fundamentals of perceptual and cognitive psychology for effective user interface (UI) design and creation.  UI is a facet of human–computer interaction (HCI), of which HCI involves the study, planning, design and uses of the interaction between people and the computers and devices they are using.

This second edition is a completely updated edition, which has new chapters on human choice & decision making and hand-eye coordination & attention, as well as new examples, figures and explanations.

Johnson heads up a consulting firm that specializes in evaluating and designing UI and brings significant experience to every chapter.  He writes that following user-interface design guidelines is not as straightforward as something like following a cooking recipe; even though people often compare the two. Design rules often describe goals rather than actions, as they are purposefully very general to make them broadly applicable.  The downside to that is that it means that their exact meaning and applicability to specific design situations is open to interpretation.

With that, the book provides an exceptional foundation on how to ensure effective usability is successfully implemented.  The book spends a long time detailing how users make decisions and choices. 

What’s really good about the book is that Johnson provides ample details about the topic, but doesn’t reduce it to so just a set of rules or mind-numbing (and thusly unreadable) checklists.  His synopsis of the topics provides the reader with a broad understanding of the topic and what they need to do in order to ensure effective UI design is executed.

While the focus in the book is heaving on general and cognitive psychology, the book is written for the reader who is a novice in the area, and stays quite practical, without getting in the vague theoretical areas.

The book provides scores of examples of how people relate to an interface, and how to design accordingly.  One of many fascinating examples is when the author details the notion of attentional blink.  After we see or hear something, either in real-life or on a monitor, for a very brief amount of time following the recognition, between .15 and .45 of a second; we are nearly deaf and blind to other visual stimuli, even though our eyes and ears stay functional.  Researchers call this attentional blink and it is thought to be caused by the brain’s perceptual and attentional mechanism being briefly fully occupied with processing the first recognition.

What this means for a UI designer is that attentional blink can cause the user to miss information or events if things appear in rapid succession.  The book then goes on to describe techniques in which to create an effective UI to deal with the effects of attentional blink.  And he does this for scores of other similar issues.

Another fascinating example is around visual hierarchy, which lets people focus on the relevant information.  The book notes that one of the most important goals in arranging information presentations is to provide a visual hierarchy, an arrangement that breaks the information into distinct sections, labels each section prominently, and presents the sections and subsections as a hierarchy.

The book details the myriad areas which are crucial for an effective interface.  Chapters 4 and 5 provide significant detail about the importance of color for effective visual representation. 

As the title suggests, the book takes a deep approach to the neuroscience and psychology in UI design.  Other chapters include topics on human vision, sound, task, cognition, memory and more.

As to memory, chapter details issues around the working memory of a user.  He gives numerous examples of error boxes and help screens that work and are epic failures, and how to do it right.  The classic example he provides is a 4-step Windows XP wireless error message.  If the user were to follow the directions, the instructions would close after step 1.

Each chapter provides numerous implications of proper and improper design, and provides the needed recommendations.  While the topics may sound dry, Johnson writes in an engaging and often humorous style.

The book clearly and empirically shows how effective UI design makes all the difference on how users interact with an application or web site. The book will certainly be an important reference to software designers, web designers, web application designers and those interested in HCI, and usability.

For the designers that can’t understand why their users are frustrated, they can understand why here.  For designers that really want to know what is going on in their users minds, one is hard pressed to find a better reference than this. 

As the subtitle of the book is Simple Guide to Understanding User Interface Design Guidelines, Designing with the Mind in Mind, a Simple Guide to Understanding User Interface Design Guidelines, is an invaluable resource for those serious about effective UI design.



Ben Rothke

Senior Information Security Manager, Tapad

security awareness

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