In this short series I take a look at the how User Interface (UI) design is of vital importance to business users and end with a discussion of how this applies to software design in general.

In Part 1 of this series I discussed some fundamentals of how visual elements on a screen can help or hinder the way users perceive information. We concluded that most dashboards are poorly designed visually out of an uninformed need by designers to “pretty things up”.

One of my personal pet peeves is the overuse of mouse clicks in an interface. It is a root cause of many people’s frustration towards technology in general and a massive productivity killer. I live by the motto “don’t create two mouse clicks to perform a function when it can be accomplished with a single click”.

This is actually why I don’t believe in the concept of a mouse with more than a single button. Coming from the world of Microsoft PC’s since way back, long ago I took it for granted that more buttons meant more features to play with. Check out my “bad mouse example” below:

Microsoft Mouse Or Louse?

Microsoft Mouse Or Louse? 😉

OK so it’s an extreme example but clearly someone thought this made sense enough to invent it (I won’t say who, take a wild guess). 

I won’t even blame the mouse manufacturers for the problem. The issue isn’t the mouse. The issue is that if any application requires a user to do more than hover and click with a single button to perform a function (even a variety of functions), they have poorly written their application

For those of us in a habit of using the famous Microsoft “right click” to access a variety of “extra” hidden features out of each icon or link, this is a weird concept. The general philosophy of many designers is that more is better. If I can provide 2, 3 or 12 buttons to activate many features, what’s the problem?

The problem is that you are wasting everyone’s time (not to mention encouraging carpal tunnel syndrome) by forcing people to hover, right-click, read options, scroll to the option, then – amazingly! – force the person to switch and now left-click to select it. Not only does this require amazing eye-hand coordination and dexterity, it is downright illogical. 

Really what the designer should have done is created the interface in a way that one single hover and click would have performed the job. You may think 12 options are needed (that’s what all programmers think since they live on a slightly different plane of existence than business people), but really the 80/20 rule applies as always for non-technical people: only one or two options are needed the majority of the time, and therefore why are you presenting all of them? Why is the software overdesigned to make so many options available at that single point, in a way that is unintuitive, and hidden unless someone goes around clicking until they find it? The right-click syndrome forces users to act like mice in a maze looking for the cheese and learning all the potential paths until they have memorized them. Solution: create simple corridors, not complex mazes. Simplify and make more advanced features available if needed only. They will mostly go unused anyway.  

One of my favorite reasons for pushing everything to the cloud (the new buzzword for web 2.0) is that web browsers are so much more simplistic than “thick clients” (like Word or Windows) that right clicks are really hard to simulate, so few programmers make that available. Great! 

A wonderful way to simplify and streamline using a computer is to use this mouse:

This may look like an Apple mouse, but... oh yes, it IS an Apple mouse...

This may look like an Apple mouse, but... oh yes, it IS an Apple mouse...

And then create applications that don’t expect you to learn intricate ways of reaching the functions.

Now before designers go fanatical on me calling me a purist, let me say I was the first to annouce that BMW was making a huge mistake with their first-generation iDrive sytem that allowed drivers to access a huge number of car features with the use of a simple mouse-like device embedded in the console. 

I happen to follow automotive developments closely and this one was a “duh” from the get go, as much as I love their products as a whole, for the simple reason that they took the purist approach to an extreme.

One thing about cars is that you need a rapid way to access certain basic functions like turning on the air conditioning. The last thing you want is navigating a menu with a mouse as you are driving, and that is what iDrive forced people to do, which is why it became an overnight disaster. Today iDrive is in its fourth generation and what has changed the most is not the software itself, but the fact that BMW has now added a whole bunch of extra supplemental buttons surrounding the console to quickly perform other needed features.

But when you are in front of a computer screen, and especially in the web world, purer design always leads to quicker clicks and a more intuitive interface. There are only so many functions in a typical car that you can memorize and we know all of them: A/C, heater, radio, CD/MP3, Volume. Adding buttons for these is really no issue.

But in software where functions number in the hundreds (sometimes thousands) more buttons and difficult menuing systems (like Microsoft’s pretty but ridiculously confusing “ribbon” in Office 2007) creates frustration and productivity crashes.

Take a second look at software you are using today and see how mouse clicks could be reduced, you might be surprised!