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On Interfaces, Plugins and the finer points of Application Design

I’ve been thinking a lot about interface design recently. Around client projects, I’ve been working on a premium WordPress theme called Bauhaus, which I’ll shortly be releasing on ThemeForest. I’ve spent a lot of time wrangling options in the WordPress admin interface, done a lot of research across the web and I’ve come to a startling conclusion: a lot of people are doing interface design wrong.

An example of the sort of thing I’m driving at is Nick La‘s new WordPress venture, selling premium themes based on his new theme framework at Themify. Now, I’m not saying Nick is a poor designer – far from it; if I’m to be completely honest, I’d say his talent far outstrips mine. If you’re not familiar with his work, take a look at the Koi theme, based on his own site’s design, which he released gratis to the WordPress community. His themes and framework are designed with a luminous iOS-inspired interface, which you can see here. By now you may be wondering what I’m complaining about, as it’s hard to criticise Apple for their UI – well, here’s the problem. His customers are not using an Apple product. They’re using WordPress.

WordPress’ admin interface is a little different to what we’ve come to expect from a web application. The current incarnation was designed for Version 2.5 by Jason Santa Maria, another man whose talent I’d gnaw off my right arm to possess, and with the exception of a few tweaks and extensions down the versions, has stood the test of time. Looking at it, it’s plain to see that it was designed by a fervent typophile; it’s far more typographically designed than the vast majority of Web application interfaces.

So where’s the problem, exactly?

People like Apple products, so what’s the problem with recreating an Apple-style interface in WordPress? People like Apple products because they present a consistent UI. Yes, it’s slick, yes, it’s pretty – but it’s consistent. Shoehorning that design aesthetic into a completely different product seems subtly wrong to me – no matter how good the design, it’s out of keeping with the vernacular of the WordPress admin UI. To me, a well-designed plugin or theme will blend so well into the application – follow the same conventions and styles, extend the user experience so seamlessly – that the user will not be entirely sure where the application ends and the plugin begins. There’s an old saying that people spend most of their time and pick up most of their expectations about UI conventions on other people’s websites, so doing something completely different (for example, a right-to-left breadcrumb nav in a left-to right language) will be jarring and counter-intuitive. Extend that principle to a user’s interaction within a single application and it becomes an exponentially worse thing to do.

If, however, you model your plugin’s UI on the UI of its host application, users will already know how to use the majority of its features without being led by the hand. They will perceive a smooth, unified interface and as such will take away an improved experience overall.

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