Thought Leadership

When a fancy UI is not a luxury

By Colin Walls

I have just been taking a short vacation and, while we were away, we met up with some friends. Their son was very excited to be the owner of the very latest model of iPhone. He was very keen to show us all the cool features and how slick it was to operate. I liked his enthusiasm and I was impressed by the device. But somehow I had two simultaneous trains of thought. First, I concluded that the iPhone did not really have any capability that I did not already have in my aging Palm device. Second, I found myself desiring one of these things – the slick user interface was like a Siren’s call.

I am safe enough, as I write this I am in a little Cornish village. The only shops around here sell pasties and tourist tat – not an iPhone in sight. But it got me thinking about how critical the UI is for a device like this.

When the iPhone first came out, it was a smart phone with a fairly limited range of capabilities compared with others on the market . Heck – it only just got the facility to cut and paste between applications. But people flocked to buy them, regardless of the shortcomings. Why was this? Partly it was the Apple marketing machine that built up the hype in a very impressive way. But mostly it was the slickness of the UI.

So my conclusion is a that having a fancy UI can not only help you ship more devices, but it can even drive people to overlook major shortcomings – design flaws and perhaps even bugs. If that is really true, then Apple were right on the nail with their design priorities.

On further reflection, I can think of numerous other applications where a well-designed UI is much more than a marketing tool. We have all experienced the frustration of trying to figure out how to operate quite simple devices where the UI has not been thought through. I had a clock stuck on Winter time way after daylight savings started, because the adjustment was beyond me. I have never been able to use a Bluetooth headset without the instructions to hand – lots of “hold the button down for 4 seconds”. Bah!

An area where electronics of increasing sophistication is becoming ubiquitous is medical. I am particularly interested in this application area, as I have spent a fair amount of time in hospitals and marvel all the technology. I wrote an article on embedded software for medical applications a while back. I picture an over-worked, tired doctor, at the end of a long shift, trying to set up complex instrument to best care for his patient. He has probably used a dozen different devices in the course of the day and not read the manuals for any of them. I do not blame him – life is too short to read badly written manuals for devices that should be smart enough to help you operate them. This is where a really slick UI could do some good.

If you are interested in UI design, we ran a Webinar on the topic some weeks ago, which is available as an archive. Another, different session is upcoming – you are very welcome to register and attend.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at