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Designing Interfaces: Bringing the Power of Patterns to Interface Design

December 8, 2005

Sebastopol, CA-- Over the past few years "patterns" have swept across the programming landscape. Whether it is patterns in Java or patterns in Ruby, programmers can now find coding assistance in a plethora of books. When it comes to the visual elements of software--the interface--then the field is much lighter. Jenifer Tidwell provides a substantial body of patterns in interface design in her new book Designing Interfaces (O'Reilly, US $49.95). With practical design advice and full color illustrations throughout, Tidwell presents a valuable resource for software developers, interaction designers, graphic designers, and anyone who creates user-facing software.

Tidwell herself expresses surprise that so few books have been written on the subject of patterns for user interface design. "The software industry has always needed ways to capture reusable UI design knowledge and best practices, and patterns work at just the right level of abstraction to do that," she explains. "They're based on good design principles, but they provide focused solutions without being limited to a single UI platform or toolkit. A UI technique that works in Java might work just as well in AJAX, for example. "

While observing that some applications, devices, and web apps are easy to use, Tidwell adds, "Many aren't. Following style guides was never a guarantee of usability anyhow, but now designers have even more choices than before (which, paradoxically, can make design a lot harder)."

As people have come to depend more and more upon interactive software--web apps, mobile, and other digital devices--good interface design has become even more important. It increases loyalty, reduces support costs, and results in happier, less stressed users overall. From the developers' end, Tidwell contends that using UI patterns during the software design process can help reduce the cost of a project by providing workable ideas and alternatives early on, before getting to the point of usability testing or full implementation.

Designing Interfaces is for a wider audience than just software developers, however. "People doing UI and interaction design at all levels could use these patterns. Experienced designers can even skip all the introductory material and go straight to the examples. The book is meant to spur creativity, too," Tidwell points out. "If a designer is stuck, he can flip around in the book and see if anything catches his eye."

Tidwell notes that apps that are easy to use are designed to be familiar. In Designing Interfaces, she catalogs many of those familiar parts, in ways that can be reused in many different contexts. The patterns in the book are designed to work for both desktop and web-based applications. Many patterns also apply to handheld digital devices such as cell phones and PDAs.

The first set of chapters is applicable to almost any interface one might design:

  • Chapter 1, "What Users Do," talks about common behavior and usage patterns.
  • Chapter 2, "Organizing the Content, discusses information architecture as it applies to highly interactive interfaces.
  • Chapter 3, "Getting Around," discusses navigation.
  • Chapter 4, "Organizing the Page," describes patterns for the layout and placement of page elements.
  • Chapter 5, "Doing Things," talks about how to present actions and commands.
  • Next comes a set of chapters that deals with specific idioms:

  • Chapter 6, "Showing Complex Data," contains patterns for trees, tables, charts and informational graphics in general.
  • Chapter 7, "Getting Input From Users," deals with forms and controls. It includes a table that maps desired data types to controls that can represent them.
  • Chapter 8, "Builders and Editors," discusses techniques and patterns often used in graphic and text editors.
  • Finally:

  • Chapter 9, "Making It Look Good," deals with aesthetics and fit-and-finish.
  • Taken as a whole, the book deals with all the important facets of interface design in a manner that is approachable and usable by both formal interface designers and programmers wishing to improve the interfaces they build themselves.

    Additional Resources:

    Designing Interfaces
    Jenifer Tidwell
    ISBN: 0-596-00803-1, 331 pages, $49.95 US
    1-800-998-9938; 1-707-827-7000

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