The Three Labors of Interface Design

by Luke Wroblewski April 26, 2004

From Hydras to lions, Hercules had some tough times with his Twelve Labors. As an interface designer, I’ve yet to tackle with Cerberus or a Cretan bull, but I have encountered what I’ll call the Three Labors of Interface Design: Globalization, Feature-Creep, and Balance. These are big interface design problems that are hard regardless of the domain, the client, or the technology.

Globalization

Most software applications treat globalization as a matter of text and image localization. However, the majority of interface design solutions can be thought of as forms of communication. As a result, Edward T. Hall’s thesis that “culture is communication” cannot be understated.

Some enlightening examples of cultural differences can be found in Aaron Marcus’s Cultural Dimensions and Global Web Design (PDF). Aaron explains the variations that emerge as a result of cultural dimensions such as Power Distance, Individualism vs. Collectivism, Masculinity vs. Femininity, Uncertainty Avoidance, and Long- vs. Short-Term Time Orientation. Because the Web is more of a communication medium than traditional desktop applications, these types of cultural differences need to be a higher priority.

This becomes clearer when you consider that the most influential form of branding is “the design, quality, and performance of a product” -Deep Branding on the Internet (PDF). On the Web, your site frequently is your product, and therefore its presentation and interactions are vital to creating a positive impression on your audience.

Creating a positive impression globally means not only understanding cultural difference, but also variations in best practices, Web conventions, and technology (in Korea, broadband penetration is nearly 100%, in Europe the majority of Internet users have dial-up connections). Examining variations with technologies is the easy part: understanding cultural differences (and how they influence best practices & Web conventions) is much more challenging but also a lot more powerful.

Next up, the Feature Creep...