The term User Experience (UX) is usually applied to developing startup app companies or web services where there may not be an existing market. In those cases, the company doesn’t have a customer base yet, but they’re using the principles of UX as part of the whole package they’re offering to prospective customers. These new websites and apps are changing our mental models of how software should work. Even if your users have never heard the term “User Experience” you can be sure they have worked with software built on its principles and have expectations about how software should look and feel.
But UX principles aren’t just applied to the web. Retail stores and restaurants and even physical products are paying attention to how the user feels when they interact with them. Some UX specialists analyze how people feel when they walk into a store or restaurant, and then give owners ways to improve the UX, and strengthen the bond with their customers. Some of those principles, like the aroma of cooking food, or the physical display of products at a store’s entry, aren’t directly applicable software UX, but you only have to twist the concept a little to make it fit.
Your software can’t give off the comforting smell of cinammon when a user launches your database, but they’ll form a first impression nonethless. They’ll be watching how your database launches, and what you’ve chosen to show them from the moment the first window is drawn and data starts to display. They’ll be looking at speed, and arrangement of data, and whether the tools they need are easy to spot and simple to use.
So it makes sense to understand how and where we can apply them to FileMaker design and development. First, let’s define a few terms that represent design specialties under the broader umbrella of UX:
Visual Design is the look and feel of the user interface. It’s the graphic choices you make on your layouts. Visual design includes colors, images, fonts, and symbols. It’s usually the first thing people notice about your software, and it’s the part of UX that most people are most comfortable talking about. But while good design choices are a big part of overall user satisfaction, it’s far from the only thing users experience. All the following terms are also part of UX, but they’re a little harder to grasp.
Information architecture is just what it sounds like and a little more besides. It refers to how the data in your software is organized for storage, but it also refers to the way that data is presented to your users. Does your architecture match users’ mental models of their data? Does your presentation match their work flow?
A subdiscipline of information architecture is Structure. You already design tables and records for good normalization. But structure also refers to the way data points relate to one another. What’s the context in which they’re presented, analyzed or manipulated? Does your database’s structure make it clear to users how the data is related? Is it easy for them grasp how a list of contact methods relates to a single person’s data?
Information refers to your data, but also to metadata that describes or enhances that data. In FileMaker, metadata might be things like creator and creation date data, or filetypes and paths in a document storage system. The term “information” also includes the business rules that describe how you gather and treat your data. How are discounts on invoices given? How and when are receipts issued? Who can void an Invoice?
Users need to be able to Find and Manage data. FileMaker gives us good native tools for finding and displaying data, but we often have to create custom, scripted Find processes to make it easier for our users. For an even better UX, we can think of ways to show the user what they need without entering Find mode. For example, you can show users with a list of their daily appointments when they log in, or the open items on a To Do List.
Interaction Design is how your database behaves when users navigate to a layout, click on a button or need to scroll a portal or a field. Again some of FileMaker’s interaction design is native. Portals have scroll bars for viewing a long list of related records. We can show active record states or active portal row states as highlights to help users keep their place on screen as they work with lists or portals full of records.
Affordance is a specific type of interaction design that refers to feedback from the system that makes it feel responsive to the user. Active record states and object states (normal, hover, pressed, and in focus for buttons, for example) make a database affordant—users see objects respond as they explore a new interface with their mouses. Affordance makes a database feel responsive, but it’s also a teaching device. A field that highlights when you click on it is inviting interaction from the user and makes the field’s purpose a little more clear.
All the above design choices add up to create Usablity. Can your users get their jobs done more easily with your software or does it stand between them and their work? Have you created clean, uncluttered layouts that present data efficiently? Are buttons easy to find and use? Is the system reliable? Can users trust it or does it have performance or stability problems that make it slow or difficult to use?
In a big development firm, specialists in each of the disciplines might collaborate on every project. If you’re on a smaller team, you might have to switch hats. Even if you’re a one-person development shop, you may focus in a few of these specialties. But just understanding these terms, and how they can affect UX, will expand your set of design tools