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Mon, Aug 29 2011 20:25:08 UTC

Designing from data points

As designers, whether we work on flyers, pamphlets, logos or user interfaces, one thing we must constantly do is keep the user in mind. We have to balance the artistic merit of the resulting product versus how understandable and easy to use it will be for whoever watches or uses the product.

Today Microsoft had an interesting blog post about how they took precise user data to redesign the Windows 8 Explorer user interface. This is an example of the value they perceive in getting large amounts of user feedback.

From the data points shown, they realized how only 10 commands counts for 81.8% of all uses in their software. The data also shows that most people use context menus and hot-keys instead of menus or toolbars. They then go into great details extrapolating the typical user experience, and how to change the design of the user interface to make it easier for users to access these commands.

The result they came up with was to not only show a toolbar to users, but have it look much bigger, called the ribbon, and put in it the most used commands right in the center. They believe this will give them more flexibility and new users will have an easier learning curve getting used to the new interface.

But not everyone agrees with the conclusions Microsoft reached. Some say that this is the wrong way to go, and that strictly basing your design on data points is missing the larger picture. It's not because users go for a few specific commands that it means they want those to be constantly displayed at the top of their screen.

Also, some argue that Microsoft went too far when looking at the data, and the resulting design is simply ugly, misguided and sizing buttons purely based on usage percentages is not the way to go. The cleaner UI of Windows 7 now looks more cluttered.

In the end, there is no right answer. It's up to each designer to balance artistic merits with what they think the users will want. We won't know if Microsoft's decision was the right one until after Windows 8 ships and more user feedback starts coming in. Still, it's interesting to see such a big company approach UI design this way.

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