Human-machine interface (HMI) design is one of the most critical aspects of product design. It’s a delicate balance of form and function, facilitating communication between machines or devices and the humans that operate them. HMIs must support the product’s functionality in a way that’s user-friendly for the humans tasked with operating the machine.

In other words, HMI design and usability must exist in harmony; poor usability or ineffective functional design can have substantial impacts on the usefulness of any product. To gain some insight into how product designers and engineers tackle this challenge, we asked a panel of engineers and design pros to answer this question:

“What’s the single most effective way to balance HMI (human user interface) design and usability?”

Find out what our experts had to say below.

Meet Our Panel of Engineering and Design Experts:


Frank GarofaloFrank Garofalo

@GarofaloStudios

Frank Garofalo has worked in the web and interactive industry since 1999, and is the Principal Consultant of Garofalo Studios. He has a Master of Science from Purdue University in Computer Graphics Technology, from conducting an ethnographic research study.

“The most effective way to balance HMI design and usability is…”

Simply put, ‘it depends.’

It depends on your target audience for the interface. Generally, the interface design and usability should be complementary, working in conjunction to provide something that is useful, usable, and compelling. More specifically about usability, if people are unable to successfully use an application, then what is the point of the application’s existence?


Devon KirkDevon Kirk

@GetPayroll

Devon Kirk is the Marketing Manager at GetPayroll and Simon Payroll App. She brings seven years-experience as a business owner and 21 years in all aspects of marketing. She has a degree in IT and certifications in digital marketing, web, and graphic design.

“Balancing HMI design and usability, to me, is simple…”

You have to know what the end user will need, what they will want and how they will want it. If you can identify these components, it will be easier to define the balance you want to create between HMI design and usability.

If possible, create focus groups with existing customers to gain the understanding of what they want to use, and how they want to use it. For example, we recently designed a new payroll app for micro business owners with up to 10 employees to run their payroll quickly, easily and intuitively on their smartphones. Sure, we had our ideas of what we thought they needed, from a payroll service bureau perspective but we absolutely had to bring in our existing customers who would move over to the new app once launched. We flow charted and re flow charted processes until we received feedback that we got it right. It was time well spent because we heard first hand what our new users will want before we have even met them. That’s exciting.

Secondly, we analyzed colors to define a pallet that would create confident, calm, stress reduction, and energy, all of which are needed when you have to run payroll. Payroll scares many business owners and we wanted to take that negative feeling away. We identified a green for our logo and assisting colors of blue, orange and lavender, all of which create the feelings we want our users to feel.


Scott DavisScott Davis

Scott Davis has over 20 years of broad-based Human Factors and UX Design experience, has lead User Experience Design and Research for Nokia and Dell and has six patents in UI and software design. He’s CEO of Forge Experience Design an iterative, human-centered design and research agency.

“Your users are your source of balance…”

The best, and really only, way of balancing the elements of a design properly is user-centered, iterative design – truly understanding your users and their goals and then creating, testing, and measuring the usability of your design, and iterating the design based on this. In this way your users will help you find the balance – what makes sense to trade off – do they want a clean simple-looking design? What features can be removed? What features can be hidden? Involving your users in your design and development process is truly the only way to find the right balance in a design.


Linda AllenLinda Allen

@Asianpersusian

Linda Allen is the Vice President of Customer Experience for Digitize.

“Human factors are essential for bottom-line profitability…”

Or can be of a life or death issue – pushing the incorrect buttons. Companies need to realize successful products and service need Human Factors.


Dana LarsonDana Larson

@dheredia07

Dana Larson is a Director of User Experience at Reflexion Health, where she works on products that reimagine patient care. Since joining Reflexion Health in July 2015, Dana has dedicated her time and passion to leading the creation of beautiful and accessible product solutions. She is the principal designer behind the VeraHome recovery platform and leads a team a talented designers and researchers.

“The single most effective way to balance HMI design and usability is…”

To validate your designs obsessively. If you find that your user interface is at odds with usability, this may be a sign that your designs are lacking a deeper level of validation. Designs can be validated at varying stages in the design process from insight validation all the way through to post implementation evaluation. The glue between the interface and its usability rating is strategy. Validating your designs will give you the tools you need to approach design problems strategically.


Bryan ClaytonBryan Clayton

@bryanMclayton

Bryan Clayton is the CEO of GreenPal which is best described as Uber for Lawn Care.

“There are three things every single product designer or CEO needs to do to balance HMI…”

1. Install live chat and respond to the inquires inside of the live chat as much as possible with a minimum of one hour per day. This will give you first hand experience on where people are confused and where the log jams are inside your product so you can improve your user experience

2. Sign up for your product once per week. So often we build an on boarding experience and forget to circle back around and update it. There are so many touch points inside of your product and with transactional emails, etc. that need to be optimizing and improved. The only way to do this is to use it yourself regularly.

3 Stay away from user experience trends. Unless you’re working for Facebook, Amazon, Uber or Google, you don’t need to be jumping on any new bandwagons just yet. Stick with the tried-and-true design conventions that The Laymen have already adopted.


Leanne McLaughlinLeanne McLaughlin

@Degree53

Leanne McLaughlin is a product designer at Degree 53, specializing in user experience and user interface design. She’s Irish, but gets mistaken for American, and has a pet poodle named Penny.

“It’s important to cater to the users’ needs when designing an interface and UX at the same time…”

You need to ask who the product is intended for, how old the members of the target demographic are, whether they are used to interacting with devices or interfaces on a daily basis and whether this product is a functional tool or for entertainment. Once you know the user, you can then create a product based on their needs and preferences. It all lies in who the core demographic/users of the product are and how they will be interacting with it.


Swapnil BhagwatSwapnil Bhagwat

@swapnildigital

Swapnil Bhagwat is Senior Manager – Design & Digital Media and implementing design, digital, web and marketing strategies for the group companies. He is an MBA graduate with work experience in the US, UK and Europe. Swapnil has worked for more than a decade across a range of businesses for the global markets.

“The user interface design should be simple to use and well-organized according to the purpose…”

The tasks should be visible without distracting elements and should provide proper feedback to the users for any errors, exceptions, interpretations or actions. The design should be tolerant of mistakes and misuse by the users. In short, for the Human Machine Interface (HMI) to balance design and usability, it has to be simple, visible, properly structured, tolerant, and interactive providing proper feedback to users.


Nicholas TenhueNicholas Tenhue

@theUXblog

Nicholas Tenhue is a user experience leader with a proven track record of meeting business goals through implementing UX and product strategies at Fortune 500 companies and startups across the globe. He is the founder of theuxblog.com and The UX Blog Podcast.

“Usability is the ease of use of a human-made object…”

If an object or product is impossible to use, people simply will not use it. Design, on the other hand, can be defined as the visual and emotional connection to an object of interface. Color, imagery, graphic design and typography all contribute to brand recognition, delight, and credibility of a product. While these things are all important from a branding and marketing point of view, function and usefulness are more important than looking good.

That said, design and usability don’t need to compete. Products can be functional, easy to learn, be intuitive and still have great design. Companies such as Google have been very successful in combining the two without sacrificing function for form with Material Design, a framework for front-end mobile and web design that provides a consistent user experience while looking great. In summary, never sacrifice usability for ‘better-looking design,’ but always aim to have both!


Chanh NguyenChanh Nguyen

@chanhdnguyen

Chanh Nguyen is a designer and front-end developer for Objective, an eight-time winning ‘Best of State’ web development firm. Chanh lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“The most effective way to balance design and usability is…”

To test it out with users. It could be as simple as asking a co-worker, friend, or a family member to test out your design, or using an online service that asks strangers. From there, you can see what works and what doesn’t, and update the design accordingly.


Dan RasbandDan Rasband

@danrasband

Dan is the Development Team Lead for Objective in Salt Lake City, Utah. He holds a master’s degree in Linguistics from the University of Hawai’i and received bachelor’s degrees from Brigham Young University in Korean and Linguistics.

“Lean on the side of usability…”

A beautiful design that is unusable is worthless.


Edward SturmEdward Sturm

@Edward_Sturm

Edward Sturm is a search engine optimization consultant based out of NYC. He has over 6 years online software experience and is passionate about creating viral network effects through superior user experiences.

“The best way to simultaneously maximize both HMI (human user interface) design and usability is to…”

Prioritize function. Ask yourself, “What am I trying to do with this? What’s its purpose. How could it provide the most benefit to the user?” A designer should be able to answer all these questions with 100% confidence before actually designing the HMI.

The HMI is a way of bringing function to life. First ask yourself, “What’s the most efficient way I can make X perform function Y?” Only then can you ask, “How can I make X as pretty and ‘friendly’ looking as possible?”


Jonathan FairmanJonathan Fairman

@dscout

Jonathan is VP of Product at dscout, a mobile qualitative research company. He’s spent the last 10 years building and running product teams, and now he puts empathy to work in products for empathic people.

“The single most effective way to balance HMI design and usability is…”

To think of them as one. Good design is about a great experience, and a great experience is founded in effortless usability. Young designers often cringe when I say this, and I make sure to bring it up in all designer interviews, but the best design is often invisible – it’s about the experience, it’s about making the user feel confident. It’s not the look.

Our industry is a generation beyond when graphic designers applied their typography and layout principles to a website. UX, UI, CX, and Product designers embrace technological capabilities, and a brand’s essence, and create an experience at the same time. We’re as much a playwright or director as we are a graphic designer.

When your user feels like they figured out their goal themselves, you did your job.


Alex Griffith Alex Griffith

@MrAlexGriffith

Alex is an entrepreneur and Founder of Giggrabbers.

“The key to balancing HMI design and usability is…”

To emphasize visual clarity and simple, but direct call to actions. Having a focus on designing a visually-clear interface (usually by utilizing a light colored background like white or light-gray) coupled with simple, clear call to actions will help any interface owner achieve optimal balance. Following this principle allows interface owners to operate within a framework that compels the perfect balance between HMI design and usability. Additionally, studying the psychology of colors through diligent research is helpful. One might have the perfect interface usability, but utilize certain colors or themes for design that jeopardize the interface experience and desired outcomes.


Kevin BrinkleyKevin Brinkley

@KevBrinkley

Kevin Brinkley runs The Website Nanny, a website and digital marketing agency for small businesses. They make conversion, mobile and SEO optimized websites at a small price, taking care of everything from design to launch in 2 weeks or less.

“The most effective way to balance HMI design and usability is…”

To test products with users. Designers, engineers and product managers have a natural bias towards creating products that work well for them. However, their needs are often much different from the end user. By testing at every stage of the product life-cycle, from ideation to prototyping, a beautifully designed product is ensured to be as usable as possible. The trick is making sure that the product team is able to override their confirmation bias.


David RadinDavid Radin

@dradin

David Radin is the CEO & Co-creator of Confirmed Instant Scheduler. He has successfully launched and grown several companies, has been involved in user experience programs, and has helped clients grow user bases and revenue.

“The single most effective way to balance HMI (human user interface) design and usability is to…”

Ask your users. Start by having a target user in mind and designing for him or her. Then take a concept, whether a mock-up, paper image, or prototype to people who fit that profile and find out what they like and don’t like. Then when you finally have it in a form that can be used, do the same with a sample of users – finding out what worked well, what was difficult to understand and what turned him on most about using your product. That’s gold!


Isaac HammelburgerIsaac Hammelburger

@IsaacHammelB

Isaac Hammelburger is the Senior SEM Strategist for Webbmason.com.

“Balancing design and usability can be quite a challenge and are often at odds with each other…”

A UX will argue that the usability should come first, after all, we’re supposed to be designing the product for users and it needs to be as simple as possible.

While designers will argue that the design should come first, after all, you need a catchy design to get people to even look at the product in the first place. The best way to actually achieve a perfect balance is to always have the user in mind when designing and building the product.

Create a persona of your audience that keeps in mind both the usability aspects and the design aspects. Have the UX team think about whether the audience will find the design catchy and the design team think about if they will find it easy enough to use.

Then test it with actual users and see if they find the design catchy and if they find it easy to use.


Andrew WardAndrew Ward

@scorchsoft

Andrew is the 2016 winner of the ‘Most Influential Male’ award at the Silicon Canal Tech Awards, and Birmingham Chamber of Commerce’s ‘Future Face of Entrepreneurship’. Andrew is the Managing director of an app development agency called Scorchsoft, and the CTO of MODL, a disruptive platform for booking professional models.

“When it comes to interface design…”

It’s usually a smart move to piggyback on common standards that exist in the market already. Unless you are a very large company like Google, Microsoft, or Apple, it can be very difficult to set your own usability conventions, as this often involves a great deal of testing and training to get mass adoption. Get this wrong, and you will create a product that flops. When Microsoft first introduced windows, they added Solitaire as a game in order to train people on how to use a mouse.

Your interface designs should be constrained by these pre-existing conventions and best practice; Put buttons where people expect them, label buttons with actions that are easy to understand, and if you choose to use icons, then use ones that people are likely to have come across before. However, the ultimate test is how the end-user actually experiences the end product. It’s critical to have a process where you can iteratively test the assumptions you have made, make changes, and release for further testing. In the end, it should be the user that shapes what lives and dies, not your own gut-feel.


Colin PrestonColin Preston

@colinpreston

Colin has spent the last 10 years of his career at Code Computerlove as Design Lead. He is a strategic design thinker with a passion for nurturing product innovation. He is also the founder of HCD Product Foundry, a community group that champions the use and benefits of human-centred design (HCD), with a regular meetup in Manchester, UK.

“I think you have to question why you should need to balance the two at all…”

Whatever definition you might subscribe to, I would argue that User interface (UI) and Usability are two sides of the same coin; effective applications of the two can’t exist independently.

The best way to navigate the UI/UX minefield is to design in a ‘human-centered’ way. Doing this moves your design or UX choices into a space that is focused on solving problems for customers, rather than starting with what it looks like or how it works.

The quickest method to uncover user problems and arrive at a feasible solution is to run a design sprint. They help provide focus to a group of experts by taking them on a journey of design discovery.

The main stages your team should go through are:

1. Understand the user
2. Generate lots of ideas
3. Refine and flesh out the best idea
4. Prototype an interaction model
5. Test and learn

Design sprints usually last for a week, but can be done over a few days at lower fidelity.

Completing this robust design thinking process helps you quickly arrive at a UI that will meet user needs, and ultimately helps you create a desirable digital product. All you have to do now is apply a UI design system to your idea, safe in the knowledge you product, interactions, and UI meet the needs of your users.


Leor GreblerLeor Grebler

@grebler

Leor Grebler is co-founder and CEO of Unified Computer Intelligence Corporation (UCIC), a company dedicated to bringing voice interaction to hardware. Leor steers UCIC towards its goal of making interaction with technology more human and natural.

“Balancing human user interface changes in design needs to be done experimentally…”

When we were releasing new product features, we would select a subset of users for testing and then see how well they interacted with the new feature. We would then make changes, test again, and only then release to the general user group. The main conclusion we drew was that we could have all the assumptions in the world about how new features would be accepted but until they were actually tested by live users, we couldn’t know for certain.


Bill FisherWiliam Fisher

@QuicksilverSoft

Bill Fisher is the President of Quicksilver Software, Inc.

“To balance HMI design and usability…”

Don’t ask, “What features do I need to add?” Instead, constantly ask yourself: “What feature/element can I remove without reducing the functionality of the system?”

Good modern interfaces anticipate what the user wants to do and minimize the steps required to do it. This technique helps highlight the things that matter most.

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