Friday, 16 December 2011

Interface design: what's it all about?

I have produced a fair number of websites and interfaces in my career as a researcher, lecturer, developer and now Learning Technologist. It's an exciting process and I'm sure many interface designers will agree with the excitement of deploying a huge range of content, ideas and approaches to their final output. So I thought I would share some of my thought process on what to expect.

It goes without saying that content for teaching materials is vital! However, when it comes to design of the interface itself, all suggestions have to be taken into consideration, sensibly. For me a good designer takes the ideas from the client on-board and then sympathetically feeds back the disadvantages or benefits of those ideas, describing how they will best fit. The designer then goes away, researches, experiments with the concepts and content, thinking about how this affects the interface, make the necessary sympathetic tweaks to produce a final draft for their clients to view. There are of course times when content and interface are happening simultaneously, the positive is that the designer can help keep some consistency with the process as it unfolds.

It's all about the content...where is it?
On the topic of content (teaching materials), I often hear myself saying this to a lot to clients, "its all about the content" as we cannot built an effective interface without having or know what the content will be. There is also often a misconception that providing teaching content is easy. Scribble some ideas on a piece of paper and knock it all together on a computer, then throw in all the content "'s the digital age, practically automatic these day..."...not really, its just a different approach to packaging content. We have to have a holistic grasp of appropriate electronic media and software, as well as the pedagogic. We may have to deploy different programming languages, building from scratch; or if we are lucky off the shelf packages that 'may' have some flexibility to allow for good design acumen. Granted there are some technological short cuts, but in reality it's a lot of hard work and head scratching to do it properly. From a learning technologist perspective, we have to think on many levels, its actually a project managing affair in its own right. After all, the interface is the pivotal source of information, if this does not work properly, how will anyone use the materials efficiently?

Mardi Gras
I find the juggling act really starts in the later stages, when sharing the final drafts of the design with the clients. There is often excitement and with this comes the clients need to bolt on some last minute additions to feel part of the final design. It's an unusual situation, of flattery combined with some stomach churning anguish regarding how it could affect the final design. What we have to be careful with at this point is that we are not damaging the original design concepts (which you have likely spent months researching), there is good reason for this. It's vital to maintain consistency in our design, ensuring that the final product does not end up like a 'Mardi Gras of content': very colourful, all singing and dancing but the end user is lost in the colours and noise. This is by no means to say that those ideas are daft or inappropriate, it is purely a case of establishing if they will all make comfortable bed fellows. The designer has to ensure that all the ideas and content flow together as coherently as possible, sometimes at the expense of loosing some of the clients inputs, but with the hope there are no red faces along the way. This is particularly important if the interface forms part of a wider 'identity' (be it corporate or educational). Does the client already have other websites, or existing teaching materials elsewhere, do they share some commonality, does the existing content need to be re-purposed? These all affect final designs. Sometime you have to use a pre-designed learning environment with very poor customisation tools or loads of 'lock-downs', in those cases you have to make do, it's up to us to intelligently add content and design ideas to somewhat match the complete vision.

What about the learning experiences?
Each part of a learning experience has to fit the intended audience, such as accessibility (can it be used with screen readers, will it be accessible in specific operating systems or software environments) and the usability, what about cross platform comparability, will the users actually be able to work with this interface in the way it was intended. Will the interface become a barrier to learning? Will any students be disadvantaged if certain functionality is unavailable to them? How will the different forms of formative study provide the grounding for their summative projects? The list goes on, it's not always easy to second guess the anticipated student use of such a system.

As we are essentially educational developers with technology 'plug-ins', we have to pull from both pedagogic and technological approaches to create the best learning environment. A lot of the initial designs can be used by studying other systems, researching pedagogic research papers on learning environments and of course the all important, student trials. This is probably the most important icing on the cake for learning technologists, try your interface with a small sample audience. See how it fairs... fingers crossed.

One thing is for sure, interface design is one of the many skill sets a Learning Technologist (LT) possess, it often amazes me just how multi-skilled we have to be. I hope this short piece gives you a taster of my own experiences, provides some insight to those wishing to design or to understand the role of an LT. Ultimately, user interface design is centralised project management, a lot of hard work, but often very rewarding! Happy designing :)

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