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Visual Design

In About Face, I showed why it wasn't the graphical nature of the graphical user interface (GUI) that made it the dominant form of computer interaction. Rather, it was the tightly restricted interaction vocabulary of the new interfaces that made them so much better than their green-screen predecessors. Good visual design can be an important contributor to the quality of any interface, but many people in the industry still credit it with value that it simply doesn't have.

I was a judge one year in a contest for the design and construction of in-house application software.[1] One of the top prize winners was a program that managed ticket sales at an annual aviation-enthusiast's convention in Wisconsin. The point-of-sale terminal—the beating-heart of the system—was decidedly nongraphic, showing only a simple textual display that was singularly stiff, rectilinear, and aesthetically primitive. Yet the program was a clear winner because the design paid close attention to the peculiar needs of the all-volunteer sales staff at the convention. These volunteers had a mission-critical but simple job to do, and they had to do it rapidly and with minimal training. GUIs are superb tools for showing managers the big picture of how their business is doing, but the users of this point-of-sale system had no such need because each successive customer who appeared at the head of the line was different and disassociated from every other customer in line. Seeing the big picture wasn't part of the requirement. A simple textual screen was entirely sufficient to make the product an award winner. This lesson is lost on many practitioners.

[1] The seven-year-old contest, held at COMDEX industry conferences, was called Windows World Open and was sponsored by Microsoft, Computerworld, and Ziff-Davis Events.


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