Wednesday Jul 10, 2013

Visual Design for Any Enterprise User Interface (Art School in a Box)

By Karen Scipi and Katy Massucco, Oracle Applications User Experience

"What color is Facebook?" Without thinking, you know it's blue. This isn’t by accident. So, what is the science behind visual design in enterprise user interfaces? 

Visual design is an essential part of the user experience. A well-designed user interface starts to become invisible to the user. It's naturally pleasing, and it doesn't create tension or roadblocks. It starts to feel like a comfortable shirt; you don't notice it. A poorly designed user interface feels like an ill-fitting shirt with a scratchy tag on the neck; you're going to notice it, and it's going to annoy you.

We've all seen visual designs that have made us cringe. And we've all seen visual designs that have made us feel good. Have you ever thought about what the differences are between these types of experiences, or why one resonates with you more than the other?

Any number of key elements affect visual design and users' responses to the design. We offer one that we consider key to users wanting to use an application or website that goes beyond usability and appeals to their emotional side: branding. Of course, you should also consider other aspects when designing a user interface for an enterprise application. All of these elements add up to helping "delight and excite" users, which results in productivity—for them and their businesses. 

Why branding? Because branding is the "hook." A well-considered brand gets noticed, so does consistency across a user interface. Branding is more than a logo. Branding represents the overall "personality" or impression of the design, and it is supported by these next few key design elements.

Color 

Color impacts the brain. A user draws conclusions from the ways that color is applied.  Color can work to your advantage if you understand how color works and is perceived by users. However, applying colors that violate this understanding can work to your disadvantage. For example, a color may have different meanings in different parts of the world. A good practice for controlling colors is applying a product coding strategy.

Examples of color usages

Examples of color usages

Contrast

Contrast is the difference between two adjacent colors. In our user interface designs, we consider these points:
  • Good contrast is central to the legibility of text. 
  • The highest contrast is black text on a white background, such as those used in books, newspapers, and dense online text.
  • Poor contrast can cause eye strain for users, even for those users with good vision.
  • Poor contrast can render a page illegible, especially for users with compromised vision.
  • Accessibility standards require a minimum level of contrast.

Examples of text on color contrasts

Examples of text on color contrasts

Layout

Layout focuses on how components and content are arranged on a page. A layout should optimize the natural way that content is read and scanned by a user. A page layout should consider and complement the reading order of a language (left-to-right or right-to-left). The content should be grouped and arranged logically and should establish relationships among objects that appear on that page.

Eye tracking enables user experience designers to determine where users' visual attention is focused. The data that we collect from our eye-tracking usability studies helps inform layout and other design aspects that we've proven might better accommodate users' natural reading tendencies.  

You might wonder why even small changes in layout and where you position components and content on a page are important. Changes can be interpreted as swimming upstream: you are fighting the natural order of things when you don't conform to established and proven practices, such as reading order. Even tiny spurts of lost user productivity can turn into death-by-a-thousand-cuts for an enterprise, as proven by Oracle Applications User Experience and industry science

Examples of left-to-right and right-to-left language reading order

Examples of left-to-right and right-to-left language reading order

Spacing

Spacing, such as white space and padding, is a powerful design element. When used deliberately, blank areas on a page can be used to break up the density of content on the page and to give the eye a place to rest or focus.

Examples that show how padding creates resting places for the eyes

Examples that show how padding creates resting places for the eyes

Font

Font choice reflects the personality of the site, for example, the brand. Conservative fonts, such as sans serif ones, are generally more easily read. Eclectic fonts, such as serif fonts or script, offer a trendier impression.

Font color and text styles also enhance (or not) the readability of the text, so they should be used deliberately. Consider that:
  • A color change within a block of text draws the eye to it and makes the user think that the text is different in some way, for example, a link, which is set in a different color from the text that surrounds it.
  • Bold text draws the eye to it and should be used to emphasize a word or a block of text. 
  • Italic text can be difficult to read online. It becomes either blurry or jagged, depending on the quality of the font and users' screens.

Examples of sans serif and serif fonts

Examples of sans serif and serif fonts

Icons

Icons are small images that powerfully impact comprehension. The eye is drawn immediately to an icon on a page rather than to a text button that contains the same information. When used, icons should differ enough in shape and color so that the user can identify the differences by simply scanning the page. 

The frequency of use should consider that the average user can process and understand a limited number of icons, their meanings, and their relationships among other icons—for example, status icons—at any one time. Our research yields that the average user can hold five icons in their thoughts at any one time. When the number of icons increases above five, our research yields that users' comprehension becomes compromised because there are simply too many meanings and relationships to consider and understand. 

Icons draw the eye to them, so they should be used judiciously. Too many icons on a page can add a lot of visual noise. When overused, users' eyes will bounce around the page from icon to icon. 

Devices

As we've moved into a more device-agnostic era, we've had to think about how to build enterprise applications for use across different devices. To control the overall visual design across devices and to ensure consistency and promote reuse across pages, we've centralized our style classes in a cascading style sheet (CSS). We also:
  • Use fallback fonts to control the appearance of the user interface if the device uses different system fonts. 
  • Test our CSS in different browsers and on different operating systems.
  • Avoid relying on images to colorize elements or add curves or gradients because they require manual image editing to revise.

The visual design aspect of any enterprise application can be quite complex. While we didn't cover every aspect of visual design in this blog entry, we hope you walk away with an understanding of what we consider the key element of visual design to be as well as its supporting visual elements for our enterprise applications. 

Interested in learning more? 

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