Controlling Your Environment Makes You Happy

This week I read a post of Joel Spolsky, the CEO of Stack Overflow. This post talks about user interface programming for software. Most of the hard-core C++ programmers Joel knows hate user interface programming. This surprised him, because he found UI programming to be quintessentially easy, straightforward, and fun. It’s easy because you usually don’t need algorithms more sophisticated than how to center one rectangle in another. It’s straightforward because when you make a mistake, you immediately see it and can correct it. It’s fun, because the results of your work are immediately visible. You feel like you are sculpting the program directly. Most programmers’ fear of UI programming might come from their fear of doing UI design. They think that UI design is like graphics design, which is the mysterious process by artistic-minding people creates cool looking artistic stuff. Programmers see themselves as analytic, logical thinkers, being strong at reasoning, weak on artistic judgment. Therefore, they think they can’t do UI design. However, UI design is quite rational. It’s not a mysterious matter that requires a degree from an art school. There is a rational way to think about user interfaces with some simple, logical rules that you can apply anywhere to improve the interfaces of the programs you work on.

User interface interacts with users working with software. UI is important because it affects the feelings, emotions, and mood of users. If the UI is wrong and the user feels like they can’t control software, they literally will not be happy and they’ll blame it on software. If the UI is smart and things work the way the user expected them to work, they will be cheerful as they manage to accomplish small goals. So, UI must respond to the user in the way in which the user expected it to respond; other way the user is going to feel helpless and out of control. A psychological theory called Learned Helplessness, developed by Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, is that a great deal of depression grows out of a feeling of helplessness: the feeling that you cannot control your environment. To make people happy, you have to let them feel like they are in control of their environment. To do this, the user interface needs to correctly interpret user’s actions.

The post gives us a thinking about designing and programming user interfaces for software. UI design should be considered as rational and logical process rather than a mysterious process that needs highly artistic judgment. UI must behave in a way that users feel like they are able to control the environment when they are using software. The cardinal axiom of all user interface design: “A user interface is well-designed when the program behaves exactly how the user thought it would.”



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