by Morgan Strauss
Ease of use is essential in any user interface, and navigation is a key element in achieving it. So while you may have designed the most graphically dazzling interface imaginable, all that work will be for naught if the user can’t figure out how to get from point A to point B and back again.
One approach to navigation is to have an icon for each system on the home screen, labeled as audio, video, lighting, security, etc. By clicking on any of these icons, the interface will take the user to that set of controls. Seems simple enough. But say the user is watching a DVD and wants to change the lighting. With this navigation method, they will need to go back to the home screen and select the lighting icon. After adjusting the lights, they will again need to go to the home screen and select the video icon. This is just plain tedious, and in a complex system it can become quite difficult to perform even simple tasks.
A better approach is to separate long-term and short-term activities. Following this approach, everything that isn’t part of the long-term activity pops out in a modal window, which is simply closed to return to the previous screen and back to the automation functions. So returning to our previous example, navigating away from the long-term DVD activity to quickly adjust the lights becomes a simple, one-touch operation. Lighting controls would open in the modal window, the lights could be quickly dimmed, and then the window is closed to return to the DVD controls. This approach is quite effective and much easier for the end user. And in the end, that’s what it’s all about.
Morgan Strauss is the president of Guifx, an interface design studio specializing in touchscreen interfaces for home automation and embedded systems. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.