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Definition: user interface


The way a person interacts with a computer, tablet, smartphone or other electronic device. The user interface (UI) comprises the screen menus and icons, keyboard shortcuts, mouse and gesture movements, command language and online help, as well as physical buttons, dials and levers. Also included are the physical components, such as the mouse, keyboard, touchscreen, remote and game controllers.

The Bar Was Set Low
The user interface is the most important, yet least-understood area in the tech industry. Every application has only a handful of basic functions that users need all the time, yet they are often buried in submenus that are not obvious. Worse yet, once bad examples are set by major vendors, others follow like sheep. Since popular applications are often hard to learn, users have come to expect that using software has to be difficult, when in fact, it could be downright simple if educated designers were involved. One shining light is the smartphone. Its small screen tends to force designers to think about usability more than ever, but not all the time (see good user interface).

Users Are Reluctant to Change
Because of the steep learning curves people have to endure, many are disinclined to change applications. While the software industry constantly touts "productivity gains" for every new product, the lost hours figuring out how to do something, combined with the gun-shy reluctance to actually try a different product that might really be an improvement often impede productivity.

Ask and Ye Shall Receive
Voice and natural language input and verbal output are increasingly standard components of the user interface, and they can be an enormous help. However, recognizing human speech and delivering the proper action is a daunting computational task. Sometimes the results people get are fraught with errors and downright laughable. Nevertheless, improvements are expected every year in this arena (see virtual assistant). See RTFM, user experience, naming fiascos, Freedman's law, flat UI, Web rage, HCI and HMI.




It Can Change World History
Nothing highlights the importance of a user interface better than the 2000 U.S. presidential election when the Florida recount kept the country in limbo for weeks. The confusing punch card ballot used in Palm Beach County caused thousands of voters to vote for Buchanan (red arrow) rather than Al Gore.






Give Us A Break!
Our dazzling HDTVs do not prevent dopey button naming. This family's salvation was to attach labels on their remote control.






Read the Manual (RTFM)
Was there a contest for how ridiculous one could name the folders (right column) in this camera's memory card? Is something wrong with names such as Still, Movie, Audio, and Email?






Keep the Elevator Door Open
The big red button that catches your eye in this building elevator is for an exceedingly rare emergency. Wouldn't "Big Red" be better as a "Door Open" button? People always scramble to stop the door from closing on someone.






A Century of Experience Didn't Help
With a combined 99 years of audio experience, Alan Freedman, author of this encyclopedia (right) and his colleague Pete Hermsen, who built a radio at age eight, struggled in vain to balance the speakers on Freedman's new receiver. The manual was worthless (see RTFM).






No Kidding
After changing a password on a website, this user-friendly message appeared. Translated: "we don't have a clue how our software got you here!"






Do We Really Need This Message Number?
The last two sentences in this message are sufficient. Why does anyone need an error message in hexadecimal? However, now and then, Microsoft has led the pack with really superior designs (see good user interface).






I Thought My Phone Was a Note II
OK, once in a while you need the model number, but why not identify the device by its common name too? In later models, Samsung woke up and displayed a real name.






Really?
This popped up on an old Android phone. Why didn't it just say 4,741 days and 16 hours and make it easy to update our calendar!!!






Da Fup What??
How about this popping up on your Android phone. Doesn't every user know this means a Device Association Framework Universal Plug and Play provider is trying to connect? Of course. See Device Association Framework.






OK. Bad Formula. But Where?
This spreadsheet explains the type of error but never states which cells are the problem. In other words "you goofed somewhere but we're not gonna tell you where."






Remotes Are No Exception
Remote control designs are all over the place. Even the volume and channel buttons can be anywhere (red arrows point to Volume Up).






Touch Typist Torment
Any touch typist not noticing that the Up Arrow key was in the Right Shift key location would quickly return this laptop. Hopefully, there is no restocking fee.






Priceless
Not high-tech but so idiotic we had to include it. These "informative" instructions were on a popular charcoal grill in 2015.