User interface design insipration

I recently read an article by Bret Victor titled Magic Ink Information Software and the Graphical Interface.  It further reinforced to me several very important aspects of software design.
  • It is vital to focus on the user's goals when designing UI interactions
  • Failure to empathise with a user leads to significant design flaws
  • Team contribution can lead to a design which is greater than any one designer can achieve
A few pages into his article there is a critique on Amazons results design.  There are several salient points that can be taken away from the criticism, however, I feel there are a couple of incorrect design decisions, and perhaps not a coherent focus on the most important point.

The main criticism was the inappropriate use of space and not providing the correct information at the correct point in time.  While this is a reasonable point to make, I feel a more advanced criticism would be to look at the user goals of someone viewing that information before moving on to the assumptions he is making.

There are many of ways of assessing user goals, personas are one, but even a relatively simple analysis with a small amount of end user empathy can help solidify the basic user goals on visiting Amazon.

Bret focused on how difficult it was to identify the relevance of a book to a search from a very general search.  This essentially is a jump to the conclusion that the main goal of a visiting user is to compare numerous items that can be received from the same single search to find a preferred item.  There are a lot of assumptions there, certainly there are plenty of customers with that goal and situation, but I am not sure that all of them will be driving through that approach or that it is even best to optimise for that goal.

I feel that if you are to generalise to a very high level then there are two main goals.  The first is to find a specific single item that you are already aware of, perhaps you wish to read the Harry Potter series.  In this light you can probably quickly identify the item primarily from its cover image and your search term is liable to exclude most irrelevant items.  Amazon's very simple interface makes this relatively easy to find, in fact Bret's design is certainly not significantly better and the small robust text make to an extent be distracting from this goal.

The second goal of finding and comparing items on an area of interest, then his design becomes more compelling, but at the same time, I still have some significant criticisms.


1. The text is too small to cover a full range of levels of vision and viewing device sizes
2. The quick review headlines appear to be too brief to be useful the majority of the time.
3. I have mixed feelings over the related books section and would want A/B design testing to see how well it works, my hunch is that removing it and providing a large font for the synopsis information would be a better design base, and that having this information at a lower level would not negatively impact the basic design.

The desire to prevent drilling down to a lower record has lead to too much information being compressed into too small a space.

However, the use of a Contents page as well as the his start wieghting indicator are both very good design features that I believe add to the compare and contrast ability well.

It is a tough choice as to the most relevant details to present on a brief and full record display to achieve the best level of usability.  Additionally elements external to those displayed in the illustrations help provide context for comparison and cannot be dismissed from the whole.  Amazon's search faceting helps you to know if you are looking at fiction/non-fiction and other elements so that you are aware if you are accurately comparing like for like items.  Bret's example is somewhat unusual as cover images normally provide a level of guidance towards what and item is and a reflection of the contents.  Although reliance on cover images can  be shown to fail in most cases it is a good crutch for Amazon's lack of synopsis or reviews on their brief record displays.

This article is a really enjoyable read, and shows that software is an area for huge potential, but in many cases even industry leaders do fall down in providing great user interface designs.


PS I really love lots of Bret's work and think he is very gifted, and criticism should be taken in light of the face that it is intended as a discourse in design to achieve better software everywhere, and that it is always easier to criticise than create!

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