Interface Design

(Comic by © 2009 Victor Wong via

Definition of User-Friendly: Of or pertaining to any feature, device or concept that makes perfect sense to a programmer. -- Popular computer one-liner (via )

What is Interface Design?
Historically, interface designs centered around developers' preferences regarding the look and feel of software. Alessi states that an important part of any multimedia program is the interface between the material and the user. For the purposes of this page, interface refers primarily to the computer screen and how it is designed, but it can also include sound or other forms of output. For communication from the user to the program, the keyboard and mouse are the primary devices used, but other items may include voice recognition, game controllers, or touch-sensitive screens (Alessi, p. 423).
However, there has been a recent push to recognize users' needs regarding the interface between the program and the learner. Therefore, interface design has shifted to an end-user focus, and thus attempts to balance software functionality with user feedback. For educators, interface design is one key component to consider when evaluating educational software.
Interface design is most often associated with development of web pages, software, and multimedia, but is relevant to the creation of any instructional media or technical equipment. Good interface design is user friendly, but the question is how should designers develop an interface that meets the needs of all users. Even though many challenges exist in establishing uniformity with interface designs, many agree that everythingability is a must when designing new technology. The body of research on the topic seems to narrow the processes down to two basic elements: 1) usability and; 2) accessibility (Rahaida & Abu Bakar, 2000). These two components taken together enhance the friendliness of navigating software. As more and more focus of interface design shifts to the end-user's experience, the goal of software design shifts towards making user interaction as simple and as efficient as possible.
This video approaches the concept of user-centered design from a practical perspective and emphasizes the human over the computer-geek factor. Here, Kim Vicente , author of the book, The Human Factor probes the mounting evils of developer-centered design, and addresses useful ways to approach development with human nature in mind . His views deal specifically with hardware, but the concepts are equally applicable to software development as well. How do we bridge the gap between people and technology? According to Vicente, cut straight to the heart of the matter and, make technology easier to use.

The Human Factor from Healthcare Human Factors on Vimeo.

Know Your Users
Certainly one approach to developing easy-to-use software, is getting to know the users. Many users of educational software have a variety of needs. Some students may have sensory disabilities (e.g. they may be blind, partially sighted, deaf, or hard of hearing). Obviously, using software is challenging for students having visual impairments, since most of the information is presented in a visual format. Some students may have cognitive delays (e.g. dislexia) or physical impairments. It is estimated that approximately 11% of children in the U.S. ages six to fourteen have a disability. This amounts to about 4 million children. On this topic, Derek Naysmith, a person who is disabled, discusses some of the problems he faces using web-based software. Pay careful attention to the design features that cause him the most difficulty:
  • A transcript is also available here (Petrie et al., 2010).
Other concerns stemming from the needs of users, include low literacy, limited English, access to older technologies, and/or slow bandwidth connection speeds. Some users need assistive technology when they use software, while others will simply need to make adjustments to their computer settings. The main ways software designers can make program interfaces more accessible to visually impaired users, is to provide alternatives to visual information. For students with hearing disabilities, designers should make content accessible through the use of transcripts or captions (Adamo-Villani & Wilber, 2010). Also, to meet the needs of learners having physical handicaps, designers should ensure that software can be operated without use of a mouse and provide safety nets to allow users to recover from mistakes (Alessi, 2001). Users with cognitive delays can feel disoriented and confused navigating software. You can view a simulation of the effects of learning disorders like dislexia to get some understanding of what some students encounter in e-learning environments. Designers can improve the end use experience for these learners (Seo & Woo, 2010). By providing simple, clear, and consistent navigation, sight maps, search functions, software designers can make interfaces more accessible for all users.

One driving principles for software interface design is accessibility. Accessibility is a provision granting access to information for all learners, regardless of physical or technological aptitude (Bevan et. al, 2005). The goal of interface accessibility is to reach the broadest range of student needs as possible. Users with different abilities have different needs, and when taken together, provide many challenges for designing software interfaces. This issue has become a very heated topic for a number of reasons. Recent legislation in the United States has turned interface accessibility into a human rights issue, and have caused many software vendors to reconsider access.
All learners have a right to access the same information, products, services, and learning activities. A few of the most common accessibility issues include:
  • ensure that text equivalents for non-text elements are provided
  • ensure that all information conveyed with color is available without color
  • ensure that foreground/background combinations are provide with sufficient contrast
  • ensure that ext can be resized
  • avoid movement and pop-ups
  • use consistent navigation
  • ensure that large amounts of information is divided into manageable blocks
Unfortunately, many learners suffer from exclusion as a result of these limitations (Alessi, 2001). Therefore it is important for educators to integrate software with interfaces that are programmed with accessibility in mind. Even though there exists no litmus test that can effectively evaluate accessibility issues for all interfaces, researchers agree that these basic guidelines can be adopted for the broadest range of programs. Interface accessibility increases usability for all learners.

A recent study the Disabled Rights Commission reported that interfaces that are accessible for disabled users are also 35% faster for non-disabled users (WCAG2.0, 2008). By choosing usable software, teacher increase student success with accomplishing learning goals. Usability is about matching closely the look and feel of the interface with learners needs and requirements. In order for educators to recognize usable interfaces, they must know the learners and the tasks learners will perform using the software.
Successful interface design takes into account how and why students use the software, the most important features for student use, the functions that are most central, and how the functions should be structured to support the learning task (Bevan et. al, 2005). When at all possible, interfaces should conform to style guides because they impose consistency with good practice. Jakob Nielson, a writer for, developed ten general principals for developing a usable interface:
  • Visibility of system status:The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time (Nielsen, 2009).
  • Match between system and the real world: The system should speak the users' language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order (Nielsen, 2009).
  • User control and freedom: Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked "emergency exit" to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo (Nielsen, 2009).
  • Consistency and standards: Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform conventions (Nielsen, 2009).
  • Error prevention: Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action (Nielsen, 2009).
  • Recognition rather than recall: Minimize the user's memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate (Nielsen, 2009).
  • Flexibility and efficiency of use: Accelerators -- unseen by the novice user -- may often speed up the interaction for the expert user such that the system can cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. Allow users to tailor frequent actions (Nielsen, 2009).
  • Aesthetic and minimalist design: Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility (Nielsen, 2009).
  • Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors: Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution (Nielsen, 2009).
  • Help and documentation: Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user's task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large (Nielsen, 2009).

Conclusion: With thousands of e-learning environments expanding in education each year, deciding which multimedia programs to choose for classroom use can be daunting. However, it does not have to be. Based on essential guidelines for identifying friendly interfaces, now educators can equip themselves to implement multimedia that is more accessible and usable, which will increase success for all learners.

Additional Resources and Links:
DesignSHOP: Lessons of effective teaching . 2010. Retrieved 2010-02-14.
Interaction Design . 2010. Retrieved 2010-4-12.

Vimeo, The Human Factor . 2010. Retrieved 2010-02-16.
Human Rights: Accessibility Investigation . 2008. Retrieved 2010-04-19.

Adamo-Villani, N., & Wilbur, R. (2010). Software for math and science education for the deaf, Disability and Rehabilitation : Assistive Technology, 5(2), p. 115-124.
Alessi, S., & Trollip, S. (2001). Multimedia for Learning Methods and Development. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.Bevan, N., Petrie, H., & Claridge, N. (2005). Tenuta: Promoting accessibility and usability. Retrieved April 22, 2010, from .
Friedman, M. & Bryen, D. (2007). Web accessibility design recommendations for people w ith cognitive disabilities, Technology and Disability, 19(4), p. 205-212.Nielsen, J. (2009). Ten usability heuristics. Retrieved April 22, 2010, from .Petrie, H., Niegel, B., & Claridge, N. (2010). Promoting accessibility and usability. Tenuta.
Rohaida, M. S., & Abu Bakar, K. (2000). A development of a Web-based instruction for primary school: SPICE. In Proceedings of the International Conference: Education & ICT in the New Millenium, 27th October, 2000, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 164-185.
Seo, Y., & Woo, H. (2010). The identification, implementaiton, and evaluation of critical user interface design features of computer assisted instruction programs in mathematics for students with learning disabilities, Computers & Education, 55, p. 363-377.

Last updated on April 22, 2010
Dionne Sincire