A user interface is not like a joke.

In the past week or so, I’ve noticed this sentiment, passed around in various tweets by a bunch of people:

“A user interface is like a joke. If you have to explain it, it’s not that good.”

While I understand the point of the comment, and agree with its overall intent, to summarily declare this platitude as true discredits innovation and the learning process that we all submit to as human beings willing to try new experiences.

A UI is a tool; it’s a method for interacting with a software application, the same way a hammer is a method for interacting with nails and wood. If you put a hammer in the hand of someone who has literally never seen it before (I know, stay with me here), is that person going to automatically know how to use it to its greatest efficiency with zero instruction provided? Perhaps he or she can figure out that the heavy end should be swung at something, but it might be important to mention that you don’t want to have your fingers in the way when you do. How should the nail be held so that it’s inserted at the right angle and binds the wood properly? What happens if you hammer the nail sideways? What the hell are these claws on the back for (or this little round ball thing)? Throughout our life, as we engage in new experiences, in so many cases, someone or something is there to help us understand as we learn. It’s a natural phenomenon.

No matter how simple you think something is or ought to be, human beings will benefit from guidance. There’s a big difference between showing someone how to create a task in an app like Clear and how to navigate the byzantine menu bars of Excel. Both require explanation, but many would argue that one UI is superior to the other. What about the UI for a machine that performs laser surgery on internal organs? Should that be so elegantly designed that it can be just “figured out” without an instruction manual? Wouldn’t you prefer to know that the person who’s shooting a laser into you didn’t only rely on his/her own intuition to ensure that the operation is a success?

It’s a good tweet, and it’s a good idea in a lot of ways. But explaining something new to someone isn’t always a bad thing. Yes, there are thousands of horrible UIs to which this sentiment can apply. Talk to anyone who uses enterprise software on a regular basis. But don’t be afraid to help your user learn how to best use your app. You can build plenty of delightful touches in as well that can be uncovered through normal use. If you want to ensure success for your users, give them the tools to understand and achieve that.

Author: Seth Clifford

I'm here for the open bar.