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Thinking Out of the Box

Pictograms – The New Sliced Bread in Icon Design

Jenny Gemmell

After the introduction of Microsoft’s new approach to user interface design with its current mobile device Windows Phone and upcoming operating system Windows 8, user interface designers and clients alongside them are beginning to “think Metro style”. Based on Swiss Graphic Design principles (established in the 1950’s) and focusing on clean typography, not only interaction, navigation and information architecture have changed, but the understanding of and thereby design process for icons has, too.

As discussed in one of our blog articles about UI guidelines for mobile devices, the concept of Metro style icons is inspired by the idea of quick wayfinding, using pictographic signs found in metropolitan areas, airports or train stations. These simple-shaped icons are not only reduced in both color and detail, but especially shall strive for understandability across cultures and languages. This requirement is by no means new, nor is the Metro icons’ attire. Designed along the lines of traffic signs using the most generic and salient mental model available, Metro icons are in fact pictograms, which against the background of spreading globalization have been standardized in many areas of deployment. Not only for reasons of maximizing their recognition and thereby their value was standardization a good idea, but also because a lot can go amiss in designing a pictogram.

To understand the significance of pictograms and their design one must first of all engage in the characteristics of pictographic and symbolic language and discern these from usual interface icon metaphors, speech and appearance. When this is accomplished five points should be taken into consideration while designing intuitive, understandable and aesthetic pictograms.

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WPF Performance – How It Matters on the User Interface

Alexander Keller

No doubt, when creating software, there is always one topic that everybody talks about: performance. In this respect, even though Windows tries to hide a lot of performance optimization work from the developer’s eyes (when developing for .NET with WPF), there are still a dozen of issues to be kept in mind when implementing a piece of software.
To start things off slowly: How does computer science define performance? Spoken very generally it is formally described as “the ability of software to complete certain tasks” (see Wikipedia). Most commonly, however, it is simply referred to as the speed of software. In this case, people usually do not differentiate between the user interface’s performance and the performance of the application logic itself.
Nonetheless, inside a development team there should be a clear understanding of who is responsible for what performance aspects, rather than pushing away all responsibilities to a single developer alone. Even though performance certainly affects the entire application, many advantages can be gained by distributing optimization tasks to different people regarding their expertise and specialization. For this reason I, as a Design Engineer, put significant effort in performance analyses for our customers and while our customers focus on optimization of C#-based Code, such as the user interface logic or other respective layers below, my area of expertise focuses on optimization of XAML Code.
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The Number Seven Is Not Magical, but Cognitive Capacity Limitations Are Real and Relevant (Part 1)

René Liesefeld
January 31st, 2012

There are several apparently axiomatic design principles that purport to be perfectly adjusted to the human cognitive system. Their prominent characteristics are that they are broadly applicable and easy to grasp for the psychological layperson. Unfortunately, however, they are usually false. One of these principles is the “magical number seven”. Very loosely based on an influential article by Miller (1956), this “magical” number provides designers with an easy guideline to estimate how many elements their products can maximally contain without overcharging the cognitive capabilities of their users. Generations of designers were forced to limit, for example, steps in a workflow, tabs, items in dropdown lists, links, choices, bulleted lists, radio buttons and checkboxes, to this apparently magical number (cf., e.g., Eisenberg, 2004). As every myth, there is also some truth to the “magical number seven”. I here give a brief overview of some aspects of research on cognitive capacity limitations from a basic experimental psychological perspective. Although the here discussed insights are not as magically applicable as some would like, the present overview might be of use for the interested UI designer.
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User Interface Design Engineering – A New Discipline That’s Here to Stay

Thomas Immich

This article was inspired by two interesting days at the GUI&Design conference that took place just recently on 8th and 9th December in Fürth, Germany. The conference audience consisted of professional user experience designers and developers and the talks and workshops focused on Microsoft user interface technologies such as WPF and Silverlight.

Not only this article is a spontaneous creation – one of the activities I participated in during the conference was, too: Clemens Lutsch, User Experience Evangelist at Microsoft, asked me to join a discussion panel in order to conclude the first conference day and discuss concepts and roles in the UX domain with regard to aspects that are challenges in our daily professional work.

For me this was an excellent opportunity to discuss a term that we have introduced at Centigrade a couple of months ago: “user interface design engineering” or a bit shorter “UI design engineering”. Having used the term just internally in the first place, we started to bring it up in conversations with our clients and partner companies more and more frequently – with great acceptance. When I brought up the term during the panel discussion, I observed similar acceptance from the audience and my co-speakers – almost as if the term closed a gap that many professionals felt has existed for quite some time. It was even picked up by other conference speakers, right the next day, which motivated me to shed some more light on the term and its meaning. So, what is UI design engineering, anyway?

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“Make it Like the iPhone” – Revisited

Markus Weber
November 30th, 2011

Three years ago, we published a blog article that shed some light on the development of the iPhone. The motivation for writing the article was the fact that the iPhone was often used as reference when talking about usability goals and user interface design ideals and that design requests often could be roughly summed up as “Make it like the iPhone”. The blog article described of aspects of iPhone development that did not get the same publicity as the product and its user interface themselves. Those aspects were

  • Apple’s complete control over design, manufacturing and marketing,
  • a completely new operating system that had been created and
  • the considerable effort in terms of time and money that had been invested in the project.

In the meantime, Apple has created several new versions of the iPhone and even included a completely new product in its portfolio: the iPad. After those success stories, it is no surprise that reference to “user interfaces like Apple” is still made. It is therefore appropriate to revisit the topic and add some insights regarding the “Apple design process” in general that have become known to a larger public, not least through the Steve Jobs biography. Such insights can prevent misguided approaches in which Apple-like results shall be reached without implementing a corresponding process.
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Kinect: Revolution for User Interfaces? – Part 2

Frederic Frieß

The first part of this article provided an overview of the concepts of the currently implemented user interfaces for the Kinect™ sensor. It pointed out technical specifications and explained the human-machine interaction within Kinect games. This second part now scrutinizes this interaction and assesses its potential for industrial application.
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The Science of Animation

Kai Deller
July 29th, 2011

To our great delight and surprise, our animated Facility Manager Prototype and respective Blog article was used as demonstration and reference material at UXCamp Europe 2011. In regard of the apparent interest in the topic this article picks up the issue yet again, focusing on scientific considerations of the past years.
Indeed, animations have become an integral part in today’s modern applications, especially the iPhone and Co. Having this said, it astonishes that scientific efforts are still in fledgling stages and that the few existing approaches vaguely draw upon techniques and rules used for cartoon movies. At the same time however, choosing the wrong animation will literally paralyze a User Interface.
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“Stock Usability”? – Why Usability Cannot Be Bought Right off the Shelf – Part 2

Markus Weber
May 31st, 2011

The first part of the article dealt with potential causes for wrong expectations regarding usability, that lead to perceptions of “usability as a product” that can be acquired right off the shelf and then implemented into a user interface. This part describes how the UX designer can cope with these challenges in order to create realistic expectations and conduct a successful UX design project.
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“Stock Usability”? – Why Usability Cannot Be Bought Right off the Shelf – Part 1

Markus Weber
April 29th, 2011

Sometimes, prospective clients request user experience designers to “bring along some ideas” for a first meeting. The thought behind such a request can, e.g., be the desire to get some inspiration regarding the look of user interfaces, which is legitimate.

The problems start when the request is made with the expectation for the user experience designer to bring along ready-made solutions that can more or less directly be used to optimize an existing user interface – a “usability catalog” from which the client can choose the right solution, which can then be provided without much delay.

This article deals with the question why this kind of “off the shelf usability” does not exist and which causes can potentially lead to these expectations.
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10 reasons why the “serious” software industry can learn from computer games in terms of user experience – Part 1

Thomas Immich
Thomas Immich
March 31st, 2011

Comparing computer games with “serious” software applications may seem like comparing apples and oranges if we think of serious software as tools that allow users to achieve mission-critical productivity goals in their working live. In this respect, the two industries couldn‘t be further apart regarding their target audience and the way they rank productivity vs. fun. For this reason, we are oftentimes asked why Centigrade as a “serious” user interface design company collaborates so closely with the game industry and even has a branch office located in a building that’s otherwise occupied solely by game development studios.

Yet, the link between computer games and industrial software is more obvious than one may think. To summarize why we believe computer games can have a positive impact on the user experience (UX) of industrial software applications, this three-part blog post provides a bulleted list of ten arguments we keep on stating in this regard. The first part gives a high-level and process-oriented perspective on the topic, the second part will shed more light on the transfer of aesthetic and interactive aspects found in games to serious software and the third part will have a look at the game industry as a technical driver for innovations that spill over to other software industries.

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Come Talk to Me: Communication in UX Design – Part 2

Markus Weber
January 24th, 2011

Communication is essential to UX design. As with other contexts, communication can be impaired by – sometimes very subtle – influencing factors, some of which were described in part 1 of this article. This second part of the article deals with additional aspects that can be detrimental to communication, such as (unconscious) language barriers and the “human factor” in UX design.
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