April 21, 2015

Crandall's Simple Steps To Avoid UI Suck...

by Chris Randall

When I gave my talk on UI design for music software at UCSB, at the end of the talk, I attempted to distill my rant to its essence, and provide a simple set of guidelines for uX and UI for plug-ins and apps for musicians. While some of this seems self-evident, I came up with these steps with the idea of providing some insight in to our world for engineers and academics that might not have any experience with professional musicians.

These are by no means Rules™ that must be adhered to, but rather some simple tips to keep your software product from looking like Pd. Basically. I break them all the time, but I have 75+ commercial products under my belt, so I get to do what I want. :-)

Musicians are generally either in a dark studio/spare bedroom/basement or on stage, and generally working in the evening or at night. Looking at a bright white slab of screen can be irritating, and occasionally painful. A UI for musicians should be lighter colored elements on a dark background. The accepted guideline for contrast is 4.5:1 for normal text and 3:1 for large text. In real world RGB terms, assuming a black background, your text should be at least #959595 or lighter. (I prefer lighter.) Dark text and elements on a light background just sucks for the most part, but if you do it, maintain the same contrast ratio for any element that provides information to the user.

Traditional fonts (and yes, I include the venerated Helvetica in this group) were not designed for readability on high-resolution computer screens at small sizes. They were designed for signs and newspapers. Don't use them. Make the effort with a modern display font, designed for modern systems. I am a DIN whore, I won't deny. But you can do far worse than Source Sans Pro, which is free as in your mom, and made by Google specifically for modern high-resolution displays. (Google actually makes quite a few modern display fonts for UI work that are free-ish.)

Unless, in addition to being a top-notch DSP engineer, you're also highly skilled at using 3D modelling software to make user interfaces, Don't Do It. There is a place for skeumorphism in audio software: this place is usually reserved for interfaces meant to ape vintage gear, to provide the user with a familiar experience. So I won't dismiss it out of hand. But it's something best left to pros. You're far better off just making a circle with a little line on it for a knob. It's hard to fuck that up.

When an engineer or academic sort is intent on making a piece of commercial (or professional, at least) music software, he/she tends to get the DSP done first, then put a UI on it during or after the process. This results in a product that doesn't have a holistic feel. It is far better to codify your initial DSP idea, then design and code a full UI, then fit the DSP in. There's no law that says you can't change the UI during or after the process, but it really helps make a better product when you're building to a set goal, rather than "seeing where things lead." Sometimes, that's unavoidable, but you should really see where things lead before you draw the first pixel.

Designing products for musicians, if you're not one, results in bad products. You wouldn't want to buy a car designed by someone that doesn't drive, would you? There are... well, I won't say "standards," but there are ways of doing things in the music world that can perhaps go against normal uX conventions, and if you've never made music for money, in the studio or on stage (preferably both) then you should get somebody in your Circle of Trust that has, and does. And I don't mean at the beta-test stage. I mean as soon as you have the UI coded. Fitting the DSP in to a musician-friendly context is much better than trying to make a scientific/academic chunk of DSP musician-friendly by brute force after the fact.

Anyhow, these are just ideas that some may find helpful. If I'm way off the reservation, or other designers that read this blog have some different (or better) ideas, by all means hit up the comments.


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Apr.25.2015 @ 9:44 AM
My display still can't even do full 1080p resolution, and I don't see the point of super high res displays for most things, let alone audio (video/photo editors get a pass). I honestly think the UHD phenomenon is just an excuse to sell hardware since you can't see the extra pixels at most viewing distances. That said, Apple is great at pushing out new standards and just based on the number of people who already own retina displays, or will in the next year or two, scalable GUI's are going to be more and more necessary in the near future. As pointed out, tiny, small, medium, and large options are probably more than enough, but I think we're very near the point where scalability is becoming less an exotic feature, and more of a necessary one. Something else to thank Apple for.

Apr.25.2015 @ 10:06 AM
Chris Randall
Spoken like someone who isn't over 40. :-)

I can't even begin to tell you how much easier it is to read a Retina display once you're stuck with bifocals.


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