Application Interface Design: Techniques to Increase Usability

web designWebsites used to be the only offspring of the World Wide Web, but now they give birth to more and more applications. This new generation does not have the platform constraints or installation requirements, of the former, making web apps quite an attractive option for businesses. Web application interface design is a form of web design, but its focus is on function. These applications offer simple, intuitive interfaces that are user-responsive, which allows users to get things done with less time and effort. To achieve this, below are some points to consider and include in your web application interface design.

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Interface Elements

Interface elements should be on-demand. What does this mean exactly? It has purely to do with clarity and conciseness paired with navigation; or more simplistically stated, keep it simple. Simplicity is very important in interface design. Your users will have difficulty finding what they need if your interface design is crowded with too many controls. Think of a restaurant menu: if it’s two pages, you quickly figure out what you want and place your order. However, if it is eight pages, you cannot decide, everything sounds good; you don’t know what the right choice is for you. The waiter has to keep coming back to check if you’re ready to order. Where the choices are fewer, the available functions become clearer to the user, as they can scan and find what they need. As easy as this sounds to do, don’t be fooled; it takes a lot of fine-tuning to design an app for simplicity while maintaining full functionality.

Specialized Controls

When designing an application interface, it’s important to select the correct interface controls for the situation. Certain controls are better for some situations than others. There are many types of calendar features, some allow a simple view, some have a few selection features, and some allow you to lock in a range of dates, including time of day. Select the type that is correct for the situation you are designing for. Sliders are another place these controls should be carefully selected for ease of use in choosing numbers.

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Disable Pressed Buttons

When a user presses a submission button and the website lags, what do they do? Usually they press it again, sometimes more than once, and very quickly. The submission process is one of the biggest problems associated with an application. Usually, this control is handled well with credit card transactions, but it should be given the same care with form submissions to avoid multiple submissions. Disabling these buttons once pressed is easy to do, and is essential.

Both client-side and server-side code must be safeguarded. Client-side code is a part of the design. Server-side code is for programmers and is dependent on the coding language. It’s a check to ensure no duplicates go through. The client-side stage is a simple, disabling of the “submit” button the very moment it is clicked, using a JavaScript code such as the following:

<input type=”submit” value=”Submit” onclick=”this.disabled=true” />

You can also make the button look pressed visually. This action is purely visual for the user to know that they have already pressed the button. It will make your application feel more responsive. You can code this in CSS: if your anchor has the class add_task_button, style the active class by targeting add_task_button:active.

Shadowing Around Modal Windows

Pop-up menus and windows often have drop-shadows, but this is not for mere aesthetics. They help the window differentiate from the background. They also darken the area behind the window providing the user with a clue that it is in the background and not active.

Traditional desktop applications used this technique to force the user to focus on the active window. Modal windows cannot be as easily distinguished form the main content in the desktop applications. These drop-shadows make the windows appear close with the three-dimensional aspect the shadow grants.

To create these drop shadows, a container with a transparent PNG-image is used as the background by the designers; equidistant padding is used on all sides of the box. Sometimes a background image with transparent borders with the content box positioned using absolute positioning in this image. For CSS, this is coded as:

.dialog {    
position: absolute;    
left: 50%;    
margin-left: -315px;    
width: 630px;    
z-index: 100001; 
}.dialog .body {    
background:url(/img/dialog.png) 0 0; /* semi-transparent .png image */   
padding: 40px 13px 10px 40px;

JavaScript-based lightboxes and drop-shadows can be used, but Internet Explorer does not support them.

Functional Empty States

When designing a web application, make sure the design looks good when no content is present. A message that tells the user how to start is an excellent choice for content. Provide a welcome message and a bit of direction or even a button that starts the process. It’s all about usability. A blank state is not usable.

These messages and features will encourage the user to try out the service you are offering. A guide to help the user through the application helps them decide if it is useful to them or not. Focus on the most important options, so as to not overwhelm the user with too much content.

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Context-sensitive navigation

One of the ways designers can provide what the user needs when they need it is to use context-sensitive navigation. An excellent example of this is the Microsoft Office Suite. When Office 2007 rolled out with the upper ribbon navigation, users would find access to everything they need when they need it, and not all deep features of Office when they didn’t. This context-sensitive navigation is very well thought out and helpful to the user.

Emphasis on key functions

Controls often are found side-by-side in groups, but they don’t always hold the same importance. Many times one function is the one most users will use, but a few may need the other. Provide emphasis on the most used control, and lesser emphasis on the less important function.  This emphasis is done using styles or types of controls. Some applications use the form input button for the create action, with the cancel action showing as a text anchor. This gives the create button more of a clickable area, and the user notices it better.