April 11, 2009

7 Features of Usable Apps

We use many applications these days, often simultaneously. No more web browser and email client, now we have multiple browsers, chat clients, social media widgets and toolbars and icons in the system tray - web apps and desktop apps and things in between, all pinging and chatting and tweeting and chirping. What makes an application practical, fun, and easy to use? Here are 7 features of a usable application:

Application Usability Tips

  1. Focus! What happens when you type the name of your favorite search engine into your address bar and press [Enter], then start typing? Input! Look at that! Put the first element on the page in focus to make your users happy. If you are developing a web application, here is a way to automatically put the first element in focus using jQuery.

  2. Labels. Be clear about what you expect from users and what they are getting in return. Data alone is meaningless without context - be sure to provide enough information to use the data presented, and make it clear what everything visible means.

  3. Icons. Don't assume your users know what the squiggly line with the hole in it means - use a standard set of icons, or at least explain what your icons do (use tooltips!).

  4. Tooltips. Again, at least some of your users might not know what "Reverse Proxy Address" means, so take a few minutes to add meaningful tooltips that pop up on mouseover for all of your form labels, icons, and anything else that may be even slightly ambiguous.

  5. Spacing. You may remember the days when all applications were presented as 80 (or 100) green characters on a black terminal. These days, your users may be using a screen size of a few inches or several feet, and you have hundreds of fonts to choose from. Keep the font readable, make sure elements are ordered and spaced in a logical manner, and keep the "eye flow" of the application in mind as you design to make your spacing user-friendly.

  6. Colors. What is the very first thing you notice about an application, or even a website? You may think it's the layout or the banner, but go to a website with bad colors and I think you will see what I mean. Choose a "soft" set of default colors, and maybe offer some wilder templates or skins.

  7. Choices. Users use applications to save time (whether they are successful is another story). Let them. I know this is tough, after all that thought about colors and spacing, but you have to let your users view their data how they choose. That means they can apply their favorite mauve/brown/khaki color scheme and make your pretty font so big it breaks your whole layout, then move all of the icons to the bottom right corner. Your application will not be "user-friendly" to all users, so let them change everything and avoid a lot of headaches down the road.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of application usability tips - and there are "recommended" features specific to web applications and desktop applications - but keeping these usability tips in mind as you design your next application will go a long way toward keeping your users happy!

1 comment:

  1. As someone who designs visual effects and other forms of digital media, I find this list of tips to be very useful and accurate. Without these fundamentals your design will just not 'feel' right.


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