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The User Interface Speaks for the Quality of the Software

An interview with Franz Koller

With the support of User Interface Design GmbH, PROSTEP is currently redesigning the Web interface of OpenDXM GlobalX, the world’s leading data exchange platform. In the following interview, UID Managing Director Franz Koller discusses current development trends in the design of user interfaces in terms of usability and user experience, as well as the advantages of an ergonomically designed interface for customers.

Question: User interface design is a broad field, ranging from websites, mobile apps, and software programs to interfaces for machines and household appliances. What key activities form the focus of UID?

Koller: As a company, we are highly diversified. We design and develop user-centered, interactive products and services for every sector. Our customers come from a variety of segments: automotive, consumer, medicine, enterprise, and industry. As a service provider, we support them in all phases of product development. Unlike our competitors, we have our own software development department with around 25 employees. It specializes in implementing ambitious user interface concepts. 

Question: What major challenges are posed by the design of user interfaces for software programs?

Koller: Our expectations for B2B applications are shaped by the apps we use privately, which offer a reduced range of functions geared towards specific target groups or tasks and are easy to use. This makes it necessary for software manufacturers to modularize their large-scale applications so that the functions can be optimized for different target groups. In other words, there isn’t just one desktop application that combines all the functions, but rather lots of smaller apps that make specific elements of the application accessible in a very simple and intuitive way. The challenge for manufacturers is to shape interaction and design consistently across all applications and to offer users a consistent brand experience.

Question: So above all, a modern user interface has to be modular and target-group oriented?

Koller: Yes, those are definitely important points. Another crucial feature today is responsive design, which involves optimizing the user interface for different screen resolutions. The question here is whether to follow a mobile-first approach, starting with a version optimized for mobile devices and expanding from there, or vice versa, starting from the largest device. In most cases, we approach from both sides.

Question: ‘User friendliness’ is a popular marketing buzzword. Are there any standard criteria for it?

Koller: Yes, there are. They are specified in DIN/ISO 9241. User friendliness is often equated with intuitive operation these days. But what does intuitive mean? Intuition always builds on the knowledge and experience of the user, which is why it’s so important to conduct a requirements analysis at the beginning of the design process. The analysis teaches us more about the users, their tasks and range of experience, and the usage environment. Anyone interested in designing an optimal interface for a welding machine, for example, has to talk to the welder in the production department, not just the development engineer. If a product is sold worldwide, designers tasked with internationalizing the product also have to factor in different work methods and user qualifications in other countries.

Question: But that means you have to identify the requirements on a global scale. How do you do it?

Koller: Ideally, we conduct global user studies so that we can factor in linguistic and cultural features when designing the product. But obviously budget considerations don’t always allow us to conduct a full-scale study. So we have to look for compromise solutions. In other words, we look at only the most important markets or we consult the customer’s sales representatives to learn more about country-specific features. And we also benefit, of course, from our years of experience designing user interfaces that can be used internationally.

Question: And how do the requirements result in a user interface?

Koller: We transform the requirements into a click dummy in the concept phase. Along the way, we contribute our experience with users, areas of application, and solution approaches. For many tasks, especially in the enterprise environment, there are certain basic patterns that users recognize, and designers should employ them to make the interface easy to use. The click dummies are usually designed as wireframes that represent the basic layout, the structure of the user interface, and the operating sequences. The customer then approves the prototypes, we test them on users, and development continues on this basis. In addition to drafting a concept, we also work out a design style. The goal here is to apply the aesthetics and quality of the brand to the interface. With many complex, technical products, the customer is not in a position to check the quality of a product. He has to rely on what he sees and can touch. If the user interface radiates precision and quality, then the user assumes that the same can be expected of the invisible elements, the technology in the background. In the industrial environment we also aim for timeless design, because industrial applications are used for longer periods of time.

Question: What benefits do usability tests offer as a means of safeguarding an interface?

Koller: It’s important not only to ask users, but also to observe how they perform tasks and to record their reactions, as in usability tests. A facial expression is often enough to indicate that users are having trouble with a specific operating situation, even if they say they had no problem with it when interviewed afterwards.

Question: So does usability offer software manufacturers a competitive advantage that influences the choice of a system?

Koller: In the past I probably would have told you that usability is an important competitive factor. Today, I would say rather that poor usability is a competitive disadvantage, because it has a negative effect on a company’s reputation. This kind of information spreads quickly these days on blogs and forums. Usability, or the implementation of usability measures, is a mandatory requirement in certain industries. In order for medical devices to be approved by the FDA in the U.S., manufacturers have to show that their products meet usability criteria. We haven’t reached that point yet in the software industry.

Question: And what is the customer’s point of view? Does high usability improve their productivity?

Koller: Definitely. Unfortunately, few companies allow a before-and-after analysis to be conducted. The few customers that have allowed us to do so showed a 20 to 30 percent increase in productivity thanks to the new user interface. Training costs decreased considerably as well. Benefits like these can also be expected from software applications such as those offered by PROSTEP.

Question: Is the idea of what constitutes user friendliness changing over time?

Koller: The expectations are changing. Things that were still cool ten years ago have since become dull. And no one talks anymore about pure usability, but about user experience, which goes well beyond usability. The goal is for usage to elicit positive emotions and for those experiences to reinforce the brand. The user experience plays a decisive role in customer loyalty. Apple has done a great job of putting this into practice. Because of the brand promise, Apple customers are much more tolerant than customers of other brands.

Question: Where does the journey lead for user interface design? Towards augmented reality or voice control?

Koller: I see major potential in augmentation, because the real world can be supplemented with virtual information. Then there’s the Internet of Things, which represents a trend towards making interaction comprehensible again in the truest sense. Haptic interaction, for example, by means of physical input elements, offers a very different quality of user experience. Voice control makes sense for certain application scenarios, but it has never achieved the level of quality that it could have.
I think the challenge in the future will be to network various devices such as augmented reality glasses, smartphones, and Internet-of-Things solutions in a way that enables them to make optimal use of their various advantages and offer the user added value and an inspiring user experience.

Mr. Koller, thank you for the conversation (the interview was conducted by Michael Wendenburg).



About the interviewee

Franz Koller (b. 1960) is a Co-founder and the Managing Director of User Interface Design GmbH (UID). Koller studied computer science at the University of Stuttgart. While still a student, and while working in the Usability Lab of the Fraunhofer IAO after graduation, he had already begun to focus on man-machine interaction and to investigate how to design software programs so that users can work well with them. In 1998, he and his colleagues founded User Interface Design GmbH, which is now headquartered in Ludwigsburg and has approximately 100 employees at locations in Berlin, Dortmund, Mannheim, and Munich. Koller is a member of the executive board of the Software and Digitalization Trade Association in the German Engineering Federation (VDMA), and also works to establish usability standards.