How to improve my UI skills?
March 8, 2012 2:32 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way to get some user interface design training?

The software company I work for lost its UI expert last fall and is looking to beef up its expertise in this field by offering to train interested employees.

As a technical writer by trade, I have often found myself in a user advocate role, pleading for features to be made simpler, and I have long had an interest in usability (pretty much ever since the Macintosh came out). I have done a lot of reading on the topic as well, though nothing much in the last few years.

So now I'm looking for recommendations on where to best spend our training dollars. These can be college courses (assuming they are offered as continuing ed, especially if via the Internet), seminars, and whatever else springs to mind. What would you suggest?

BTW, we develop desktop applications, not Web apps, so I am not very interested in training that focuses on Web apps.
posted by kindall to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Steve Krug, author of "the" book on usability, Don't Make Me Think!, conducts workshops.
posted by davcoo at 2:59 PM on March 8, 2012

Universities with good computer science, engineering and/or psychology programs often have a Human Comupter Interaction program, though it's as often as not a masters. I'm rather biased (went to Tech, friends with several GVU folks), but Georgia Techs GVU Center does rather remarkable things. That might be a bit much of an investment. This might give you some other ideas.
posted by kjs3 at 3:20 PM on March 8, 2012

Best answer: Since you're in Renton, check out University of Washington's programs. They have a Human Computer Interaction program that's quite good.

Before moving away, I was enrolled in their User-Centered Design program which was offered at night (in Bellevue), and it was excellent and highly focused on usability and usability tests. The majority of people in those classes were Microsoft employees, general software developers, and web developers, with no programming experience necessary. And while class projects leaned towards web interfaces (because of how easy it is to find, test, and iterate on one while also observing/surveying the users), we had the option to use other software interfaces and physical products if we really wanted to.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 3:46 PM on March 8, 2012

Seconding Krug's book as a good starting point. It's short, so you won't waste a lot of time reading it. The number-one take-away from the book is that you can get the best results fastest by putting 'civillians' in front of your UI and asking them to perform tasks. Then you iterate the design, then you re-test. DMMT will help you set these up.

Desktop apps have their own challenges vis-a-vis web apps. Get cozy with your target OS's 'Human Interface Guidelines' document(s), too.
posted by Wild_Eep at 6:05 PM on March 8, 2012

Best answer: Also seconding Don't Make Me Think. Some other recommendations:
posted by fleeba at 8:17 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also the grandma of these books, The Art Of Human-Computer Interface Design might be worth looking at if you can get the chance. It's almost 25 years old but still has some useful information.
posted by mephron at 10:04 PM on March 8, 2012

I would tell your company that the best thing they can do with their training dollars is nothing.

There are actually a few different questions bundled together here and the answer to the first two (how to improve your UI skills; what's the best way to get some user interface design training) involve quitting your writing job to focus on learning UI design. But that's counter to your company's interest in having some UI expertise in house. So you're kind of stuck.

UI design isn't something you learn through continuing education over the internet and it isn't something you learn from books. The way you get better at UI design is to start building your own interfaces in a culture of critique with other designers. But the bigger problem is that UI design is only one aspect of interaction design, which is a much thornier issue and requires some focus that's not usually compatible with a full time job doing something that's not design.

I don't want you to go away entirely empty-handed, so I'll pass along some free advice from one of my former classmates on how to approach the problem:
"You tell him I said to take a long unstructured walk around his city. Talk to strangers. Take pictures. Visit at least one museum. Pretend like he's from somewhere else for an hour. Stop in a park to read Raymond Carver's "What we talk about when we talk about love." (outloud would be rad, but I leave that up to him.) Go into a music store, find two people who seem completely different from him and buy whatever they are buying. And then end his travels at your house where he'll tell you the story of his day over a bottle of Bombay Sapphire Gin. The story should last as long as the bottle.

"You listen to his story and then like Mr. Miyagi in "The Karate Kid" tell him all the things he already knows interaction design without even realizing it.

"And to answer the question before you ask -- why Bombay Sapphire Gin? Gin because it's yummy. Bombay Sapphire because it's beautiful. We're still designers after all. ;)"
One of the problems with the "usability" books you'll see in this thread is that they focus on usability. That is, how to recognize what's broken about a bad interface and make it less bad. That's not the same thing as designing a good interface. Think of it as sanding the splinters off the log you're using for a chair. Sanding doesn't make the log a chair, even though it's free of splinters. It's still uncomfortable. You want to learn how to design for comfort and delight, and you don't do that with sandpaper or distance learning.

If your company saved their training money they could maybe get a foosball table. Those are neat. Also, comfortable chairs for the office. But the best investment would be to hire another designer.
posted by Jeff Howard at 10:54 PM on March 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The problem with talking about UI design as a field is that it's not really a single skill, it's actually multi-discipline, and you need a working knowledge of many other fields to practice it - interface design, information architecture, information design, usability, site strategy, and editorial. Along with those key skills, there are increasingly other areas of expertise needed, such as social media strategy, games design, data visualisation techniques, etc.

As mentioned above, usability is really only one aspect of UI design and is often more about fixing problems than creating elegant experiences. So I'd think bigger than just courses on usability, and investigate information design, information architecture and so on.

Anyway, if you want to hit the ground running, I'd recommend starting with Jenifer Tidwell's Designing Interfaces - It's a compendium of the best UI design patterns, and serves as a practical guide to building usable interfaces.

> BTW, we develop desktop applications, not Web apps, so I am not very interested in training that focuses on Web apps.

I really wouldn't get too hung up on platforms at this point. In the short term, there's obviously a difference between a desktop app and a web app, but if you're serious about being a UI designer over the next decade, you're going to have to think cross platform as the lines between each platform get blurred. For example, Microsoft use the Metro design language on Windows Phone 7, but it's going to be rolled into the start menu of the new desktop Windows 8, with new Metro style apps using a look extended from the mobile look and optimised for tablet and touch interactions.
posted by iivix at 3:09 AM on March 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: The UNIX version of our software (including the one we ship for Mac OS X) still uses X Windows and Motif. I think you can safely assume that our Windows version will not be going Metro anytime soon. We are so far from the cutting edge of UI that we can't even see it over the horizon.

We'll eventually hire another UI designer, but that will take some time because they all want to work for Microsoft or Google or Adobe or else don't have any experience in data visualization (our bread and butter). It took us months to find our last one. In the meantime, there's certainly plenty of "making a bad UI less bad" to do around here. Even when we do have a full-time UI person again, letting him or her focus on the bigger picture while others obsess over individual dialogs may be useful.

Thanks to all who actually made suggestions for their suggestions.
posted by kindall at 8:57 AM on March 9, 2012

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