October 08, 2012
With applications often designed to function on smartphones, tablets and laptop and desktop PCs, there has been a lot of discussion about how graphical user interface design has to be adjusted to fit different screen sizes and viewing formats. Another key consideration, which sometimes falls under the radar, is the need for GUI design to take different control methods into account.
Dealing with diverse control schemes
The primary purpose of a GUI, besides presenting data to users in an effective way, is providing individuals with a way to control an application. This involves everything from sorting through information, creating new content and performing data analysis. When a GUI is designed, it has to be created with user interactivity in mind. If the solution is not well implemented from a user control perspective, it can become cumbersome to work with and hurt the quality of the application as a whole.
When most users were running applications on a desktop PC, programs were designed to work with a keyboard and mouse interface that offered plenty of options for user control. As laptops, tablets and smartphones have become more prominent, efforts have primarily focused on developing GUIs so they can replicate keyboard and mouse functionality using touchpad or touchscreen controls.
Adapting interfaces for mobile devices
Laptop touchpads, while rarely as responsive or user friendly as a traditional keyboard and mouse, offer roughly the same functionality for end users. There are some things that are not as easy to do with a touchpad, but that is a matter of convenience, not really a major inhibitor from a design perspective.
However, touchscreens simultaneously offer challenges and opportunities. Establishing a GUI that solely attempts to replicate keyboard and mouse functionality with a touchscreen can lead to limited performance. The fingertip does not offer the same precision as the mouse for clicking on a specific field in a database, for example. At the same time, tablet- and smartphone-based keyboards can make users reticent to input large quantities of text or control the application through key-based functions.
At the same time, well-implemented touchscreen controls can actually make an interface more user friendly and intuitive than a traditional mouse. As a result, being able to design an interface in an innovative way that does more than replicate keyboard and mouse functionality can lead to quality improvements on smartphones or tablets.
Device diversity presents application developers an opportunity to take advantage of different control styles to improve GUI functions on different platforms. However, accomplishing this requires careful planning and superior design.