Austere UI, and tech-challenged users

There has been a lot of talk about how the ‘flat design’ trend of more austere UI is an indication that users are more comfortable with interfaces now. 

When touch screens were new, users needed lots of hints on screen about what they could touch or drag and what it would do when they did so. 

Now that they’re used to it, they need fewer hints, they can figure it out from a more austere UI. 

(This also makes me think about how ‘affordances‘, a concept at the center of Donald Norman’s very useful thinking about interface design, are culturally-determined — and how quickly our material culture is changing at the moment.)

Here’s a blog post that I think makes that argument well, with examples that I think succesfully convince that these more austere, simple, ‘flat’ UI’s really are superior and even easier to use now that we are used to them. 

But ‘we’, who is this ‘we’?  Well, it’s ‘most’ users or consumers. 

What about the X% minority that is not yet comfortable enough with the technology or class of interfaces in question to be able to handle a more austere interface?

If you’re a business, this isn’t too complicated, although the devil can be in the details:  When that X is small enough, improving the UX for the vast majority will improve your sales enough that leaving behind that X%, well it’s still good for business. 

What about a non-profit organizational endeavor, or at any rate one that is not sales-based — like a library?

We don’t want to leave any of our users behind. Sometimes it’s considered outright unacceptable to leave any of our patrons, even a single one, behind.

But it’s still probably true that we can’t design our interfaces for the least technologically comfortable among our userbase — without ending up with a lowest-common-denominator product that is frustrating and unsatisfying to the greater majority of our users.   We still might choose to be more conservative in our interfaces than some startup businesses; but if we go all the way to the end of the dial on conservative interfaces, we’re just going to continue our slide into irrelevance for the greater number. 

So it’s a balance, and the only way we can find it is by knowing our users, knowing a lot more about the composition of our diverse userbase, figuring out what and who that “X%” that might be left behind by any given design are, in our actual userbase. Which will change over time. That is, doing more research into our users. 

If those on the lower end of technological comfort are over-represented in the organization amongst internal stakeholders and decision makers, well, that’s an added challenge. 


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