Five Design Precepts of Great Software

The qualitative differences in software is often striking. So, what makes great software? This list obviously includes, power, speed, and great functions. But I would suggest that you add to this list, the methodical use of Design Precepts. What are they? Design Precepts are those things that determine how software looks and feels, and determines how easy the software is to use. On a day-by-day basis, they will have a greater impact on you, than all the other ‘features’, and will cause you to love your software, or hate it. Fortunatley, they are often easy to recognize with only a few glances. You can quickly see whether the developer has taken the time to frame out their critical Design Precepts, and there are dozens needed to build good software. But a few of them are fairly easy to see and recognize. We can use them as rough indicators of software quality.

The following are five that you should be able to spot. You can use these five to roughly ‘grade’ your current software or the software you are considering! In school terms, utilizing all five earns a possible ‘A’ ; four out of five, a ‘B’ ; three of five, a ‘C’ ; etc….  Now, lets look at these five core Design Precepts.

Focus Areas and Eye Lines- On every screen it should be apparent what is the most important information. The use of gradients, graphic elements, fonts and colors should all guide your attention to the Focus Area on the layout. The Focus Area should be obvious from even 5 feet away. Then, once your eyes leave the the primary focus area, the remaining objects should be carefully arranged to provide ‘Eye Lines’ to guide your eyes easily through the remaining fields and areas. Think of ‘Eye Lines’ as paths through well-tended garden beds.

Lots of white space-  Much software tends to try to do too much in one visual place. Often, we see so many fields and functions packed into one area that it becomes visually overwhelming. Such poorly designed layouts will look like a community bulletin board with notes, announcements, business cards piled and stacked atop each other higgledy piggledy!  Instead, we want to use software that has lots of white space for creating visual comfort. White space is created by moving less commonly needed items to background layers, or ‘More’ layouts. White space in software is like a quiet park in the middle of a bustling city. It provides a critical respite between your tasks. And, it makes it easier for  you to focus on specific core jobs without your eyes wandering around confusedly.

Reduced Eye Chatter- Eye Chatter is a physical phenomenon where your eyes literally jump from object to object on layouts that have too many things. By the end of the day, your eyes are literally exhausted. The solution is to reduce the number of fields, objects and even labels to the bare essentials.  The religious ‘Shaker’s in the 1800’s were masters of this with everything they designed. And, modern ‘flat design’ in mobile operating systems, also illustrates reduced eye chatter.   If it is not essential to the function of the software, it is just not there. Think of a clean open desk in a workshop or workroom surrounded by tools in their places. It just invites you to create something. Save your eyes by using software that has reduced eye chatter. When building PestaRoo we aim for a maximum of 50-100 objects on any layout. And remember, each field, each label, and each line or box is an object. Count them in your software….

Simple color palettes- Think back to that community bulletin board. Not only it is packed full, but the range of shouting colors is an insult to your visual senses. To find all the posts of a common type is nearly impossible because there is no color theme to provide coherence. Good software is based on themes with a limited palettes of only 5 or 6 soft colors.  Colors should be selected that work harmoniously together. And then, each of these limited colors should be used in consistent functional associations so as to gently guide the user through the software with little or no training. Avoid software with loud sharp intense colors like the plague. They are like those customers that can never be pleased, and endlessly complain.

Quick Navigation- You should be able to move throughout the software with comfort and ease. An easily accessible Home Page is part of the navigation piece. But other elements, quietly placed everywhere, should allow you to get to anywhere. A common example are “Jump-to Triangles”. To test this, you should be able to get to any common function with a max of three mouse clicks or perhaps five for the more obscure need. This “rule of three” helps insure you can quickly get your work done.

So, your homework is to grade your current software or that which you are considering, by looking at their use of these five Design Precepts.  If you get and ‘A’ or ‘B’ that is wonderful. Anything less will be placing unreasonable burdens upon your staff. Great software should be a pleasure to use. It should be the major means for reducing ‘end of day’ fatigue. Make sure your software gets a good grade!