UI design: Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater - Embedded.com

UI design: Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater


At the recent 2013 CES and at earlier ESC DESIGN shows I have seen the radical ways in which new human-machine technologies are having on the way humans interface with their computers. This shift is not only occurring in mobile smartphones, wireless tablets and even dekstop PCs, but in a variety of embedded devices in consumer, industrial and automotive apps as well.

The new UI technologies they now use run the gamut: capacitive switch based sensors, 3D, gesture and hover, MEMS-based accelerometers and vision-based systems that can see and understand.

The flood of new UI alternatives available to the developer has both its upsides and its downsides. On the positive side, the new user interface alternatives designed to either supplement, or replace, the traditional graphical user interface are in some cases making computer based systems much more accessible. On the negative, in many cases device designers seem to have adopted a “throw out the baby with the bathwater” strategy in their enthusiasm for the new user interface alternatives.

Without taking into account what they have learned about user habits and preferences in the decades that the traditional GUI has been in use, they have moved willy-nilly to the new HMI alternatives, often with disastrous results.

By ignoring the basic principles of user interface design learned in the era of when graphical UIs were the main mechanism for such interaction, the result as far as I can see, is confusion and rejection. Using one of these new gesture, hover, etc. enabled devices is very much like being asked to join an elite secret society and then being asked to learn a unique set of “secret handshakes” to gain access to the secret society’s meetings or to talk fellow members.

A good place to review the fundamentals of good user design before you jump into the new world of capacitive touch, gesture, hover and 3D user interfaces is, of course, on Embedded.com. In this week’s Embedded.com Tech Focus report on “Rethinking User Interface Design , ” are gathered together some of the recent columns design articles, company technical papers and webinars on various aspects of UI design, both new and old.

In addition, out of Embedded.com’s 20-year knowledge base, there are several design resources several I can recommend as my Editor’s Top Picks because they deal with new design principles that you should have to make sure they are in your repertoire of UI skills, including:

Expanding resources streamline the creation of “Machines that See”
Understanding the new user interface design rules
Wave hello to the natural user interface
User expectations and standards-based application platforms
Gesture recognition–first step toward 3D UIs

There are also a number of other older, but still relevant user interface articles from which fundamental principles of good UI design can be derived, including:

Interfacing the User
Put the user in the driver’s seat
Usability for Graphical User Interfaces
To err is human: teaching a GUI good manners
Design user interfaces for cooperating devices

And even when the UI you’ve designed does everything it should, many of the new alternatives, such as those based capacitive touch sensors, may be ruled out because of the environment in which they must operate. For example, because of the nature of the touch sensor environment, such things as electrostatic discharge and electromagnetic interference are now only a fingertip away from your system’s electronics. Four recent articles on Embedded.com that deal with such issues include:

Understand EMI sources in touchscreens
A standards-based approach to capacitive-sensor EMC problems
Design capacitive touch systems for robustness
Writing drivers for common touch-screen interface hardware

There are many new UI design modalities being investigated that will further test the ability of embedded system designers to balance the new with the old. I would like to hear from you about your challenges and how you addressed them.

Embedded.com Site Editor Bernard Cole is also editor of the twice-a-week Embedded.com newsletters as well as a partner in the TechRite Associates editorial services consultancy. He welcomes your feedback. Send an email to , or call 928-525-9087.

See more articles and column like this one on Embedded.com .Sign up for the Embedded.com newsletters . Copyright © 2013 UBM–All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “UI design: Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater

  1. There's a saying in real-time embedded design: “If it's late, it's wrong.” I'd like to extend that to UI design:”If you have to think about it, it's wrong.” I know an engineer from Calgary, Alberta who rented a Ford. He told me it took him about 10 min

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  2. When I worked in Silicon Valley and had figured out that it was cheaper to rent a car when I needed it to visit companies than to own a car, I faced the same situation as the engineer from Calgary. Unless I rented the same model from the local auto rental

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  3. At least the your engineer friend found an owner's manual in his rent-a-car. When I rent a car, the owner's manual always seems to be missing from the car, which is very annoying because not all cars have the same controls, as Bernard Cole points out.

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  4. The biggest problem is that UI design is often fad driven and the engineers want to play with all the cool toys, forgetting how the product really needs to work.

    Similarly there are many GUIs that have cute actions that provide no benefit. An example is t

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