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Web User Interface Design

Web User Interface DesignLong before the first advanced Graphical User Interface (GUI) was created, the Internet was a network of minimal functionality and basic display. Text was displayed on its own, and the scope for interactive, or indeed, graphical design, was extremely limited.

Fortunately, times have moved on and we're now at a stage where web users will not only expect a good interface design, but they'll demand one. It goes without saying that an efficient user interface design is paramount to a successful website.

The Internet is not a pretty environment if you strip away the bare bones and examine the protocol mechanics. To cover the technicalities, we use graphical interfaces to navigate websites, and get from A to B. These are simply instances where text, images and specific actions are made available to the end user, allowing them to interact with the web. Site interactivity is a crucial factor for any would-be designer, and you need to understand that without a working interface, every last visitor that your website receives is going to waste.

A user interface can be created through a variety of tools. If you're feeling brave, you can design an entirely table-driven interface in Notepad (or any basic HTML editor). You don't have to include graphics in an interface design, but it's very commonplace. For example, users are finding it increasingly possible to design an interface through Macromedia Flash. While this throws up a whole set of accessibility issues, it can look extremely initiative, if you have the plug-ins required to host it.

Information architecture plays an important role in your interface system. What good is a website that hosts information that the user doesn't want? You should have a solid understanding of the audience that you're targeting with your website, and cater the interface to their needs. Navigation plotting is a priority and you should have a clear outline of links to assist the users in navigating the site.

There's nothing worse than an interface that lacks navigation consistency. A user shouldn't face the problem of visiting one page and subsequently finding that the entire list of links has changed and they're in a completely different realm. Information architecture relates closely to navigation in the sense that your users should always know where they are, and how they can access any part of the site.

A good way to counter poor interface design is by ensuring that a hyperlink to every essential area of your website is displayed on every page. Don't make your audience search for the needle in a haystack of misleading links. This raises the issue of overcrowded navigation systems. There's no greater sin than presenting your user with a sea of options and expecting them to figure where their next destination should be.

A good navigation system needs to incorporate categories, and possibly graphic themes to differentiate separate areas of the site. Don't flood your site with bold imagery if its only purpose is to look beautiful. Simple and initiative interfaces are the direction you should be heading in.

You will need to carry out a great deal of usability testing to ensure that your interface is multi-platform compatible across different browsers. You have to be careful since Microsoft Internet Explore doesn't necessarily render HTML tables in the same fashion as Mozilla Firefox.

Each browser has a slightly different specification for displaying functions such as borders, spacers and table alignment. You need to go through and test your interface with each browser to ensure that you're not alienating a large portion of your audience.

Did you know that websites which "discriminate" against those with disabilities by not providing full accessibility are breaking the law? Consider the implications of using JavaScript and Flash without consideration to those who use alternative methods of browsing the Internet. While it would be ridiculous to design an interface with your target audience being the blind, or the partially sighted, that's not to say that you should forget about them completely.

There have been several cases of commercial websites being taken down due to a failure to comply with w3 Consortium accessibility standards.

When you put your interface together, make sure that you use a minimal number of external links. In some cases, this can be unavoidable with advertisers paying for space on your page. But external links are out of your hands and they can be somewhat distracting to the user who probably doesn't want to be taken on a detour of the Internet to reach a second destination.

Don't make the fatal mistake of opening external links in the same window. Any link for an outside party should be targeted to _BLANK. Targeting retains your audience, and separates your interface from somebody else's disasterpiece.

Above all else, strive to ensure that your interface is consistent with a clear header, a clear reference to the user's current location (a tiny site map with arrows in tree view does the trick), and a set of core links that remain present throughout the site.

Keep your background tables easy on the eye by using light colors with a dark text. Black interfaces should be avoided unless essential to the theme of the site. Your main content pane should be distinguished and obvious when the page loads. And on the subject of loading, you MUST remember to optimize your interface images. Don't leave your users waiting seconds on end for some fancy design to appear. Simplicity is the key.

If every web interface design was the same, our jobs as designers would be mundane and pointless. It's the scope for creativity that can make interface design one of the most rewarding aspects of web developing. But be aware that as in all aspects of developing, your personal pride should not get in the way of the end user's browsing ease. A good user interface is one which users can actually use. Don't forget it.
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