Making an Interface Feel Instantly Familiar

As I entered the store on the weekend of the iPhone launch, none of the shoppers gathered around the table of devices had ever used anything like it. The majority of them didn’t know more about it than the brief snippets of footage they’d seen on the news. But I didn’t notice any one of them struggle. Everyone, from kids to the elderly, understood the phone within seconds of picking it up. As I walked around, people were tapping on songs, taking photos, pinching to zoom in and out of web pages. On an entirely new device. It must be a miracle. Or a solid piece of UI work.

Understanding an interface is what makes a user comfortable using it. As such, one of our goals is to make sure a user can understand an interface in the shortest time possible, and with minimal conscious effort. A key way of doing this is to leave a number of hints about the purpose of each element so that a user should always be able to understand it. This is the same technique used by Apple to introduce the iPhone interface to new users.

It all starts from the lock screen. Across the bottom is an indented slider control. There’s a button sitting on the far left, with an arrow pointing towards the right. Shining in the indented area are the words “slide to unlock”. Immediately, the user understands that they’re on a “lock screen”, and the task they have to perform in order to access the rest of the interface. Swipe. They’ve just performed their first gesture.

Another great example is menu navigation. As the user drills down into a menu, each proceeding list of options slides in from the right. In the top left corner appears an arrow, pointing towards the left — the direction of the menu they just came from. If the user still isn’t sure, it also contains the title of the previous menu, to show them where pressing it will take them. It eliminates all fear, formed by a history of pressing back buttons and ending up somewhere they didn’t want to be.

By leaving multiple hints about the purpose of each UI element, Apple have ensured the user isn’t left confused. And none of these hints are too obvious, or feel patronising. They feel like natural parts of the interface, and they’re just enough for the user to understand how to use it.

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