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1. Pick a Team
2. Do Task and User Analyses
3. Find a Good Conceptual Model
4. Define the Home Window
5. Define Menus and Toolbars
6. Create the User's Path
7. Define Fields
8. Brainstorm Icons
9. Define Shortcuts
10. Define Pushbuttons
11. Create Radio Buttons, Checkboxes, and Lists
12. Define Tables, Graphs, and Spreadsheets
13. Write Messages and Online Help
14. Set up for the Next Release
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The 14-Step Drill-Down Method For GUI Design

This page contains a quick approach to designing desktop software or web applications. Please feel free to write to us if you've found this page helpful, unhelpful, or want to add your experiences.

1. Pick a Team

Teams are made up of functional roles (easy to fill) and team roles, which are not so easy to fill (unless you know the secret). Team roles were defined by Cambridge researcher Meredith Belbin's work--see What Are Belbin Team Roles? for more information.

Functional Roles Team Roles
  1. Artist
  2. Customer
  3. Developer
  4. Marketing or sales director
  5. Quality assurance expert, tester
  6. Technical writer
  7. Trainer
  8. Usability engineer
  1. Completer
  2. Coordinator
  3. Implementer
  4. Monitor / Evaluator
  5. Plant
  6. Resource investigator
  7. Shaper
  8. Specialist
  9. Team Worker

Functional Roles

Artist or graphic designer

Can visualize the correct visual style.

Can create sensible graphics.

Can cut the writer's and developer's dependence on words.

Artist or graphic designer
Customer (internal or external) Has the business acumen.

Knows the application's function.

Involving the customer in the design phase is an old but underused custom. This is also referred to as Joint Application Design (JAD) or participatory design.

Customer as a team member
Developer, system engineer Knows what's possible.

Good stand-in for expert users.

Developer as a team member
Marketing or sales rep Knows what will sell the software.

Knows what the point of the whole thing is.

Marketing or sales representative as a team member
Quality assurance expert, tester Knows what will make an application easy to support and maintain.

Knows what will pass an outside audit.

Quality assurance tester as a team member
Technical writer Knows how to analyze functionality from a user's point of view.

Good stand-in for novice users.

Very conscious of internationalization.

Technical writer as a team member
Trainer Knows, at first hand, what angers or confuses users.

May notice that users are changing the ways they use an application.

Trainer as a team member
Usability engineer Knows how perception works.

Has expertise in task analyses, usability testing, and GUI design techniques.

Jakob Nielsen, a usability engineer who worked at Telcordia (Bellcore), and then at Sun Microsystems, and is now on his own, found that a team of 5 or 6 expert usability engineers could identify about 95 percent of the interface mistakes.

However, they can't find mistakes in the conceptual model, especially in business domains that they don't know very well. You need to work with users for that.

Usability engineer as a team member

Team Roles

People usually have more than one role or talent. Therefore, you don't have to have nine-person teams. In fact, research has shown the five- or six-member teams seem to work best.

  Role Strength Weakness

Mahatma Gandhi



This person might also act as your recorder, provided he or she can be kept from recording too much.

Typical completers are editors, accountants, and technical writers.

Painstaking, conscientious, anxious.

Searches out errors and omissions.

Delivers on time.


Inclined to worry too much.

Reluctant to delegate.

Can be a nit-picker.

Eleanor Roosevelt Eleanor Roosevelt as a Coordinator


This is a good role for team facilitator. Studies show that "delegating well" goes beyond merely assigning jobs to other people. There are two other aspects:

  • Make sure that other team members get to fulfill their roles--he or she doesn't hog all the roles.

  • Steps up to the nasty or unpleasant jobs that no one else wants to do, such as firing people.

Mature, confident, a good chairperson.

Clarifies goals, promotes decision-making, delegates well.


Can be seen as manipulative.

Delegates personal work.

Douglas MacArthur MacArthur as Implementer


This person would be a good recorder, because he or she will do the notes, add action items, distribute them, and follow up on the action items.

Disciplined, reliable, conservative, and efficient.

Turns ideas into practical actions.

Somewhat inflexible.

Slow to respond to new possibilities.

Alan Greenspan Alan Greenspan as Monitor Evaluator

Monitor Evaluator

Sober, strategic, and discerning.

Sees all options.

Judges accurately.

Lacks drive and the ability to inspire others.

Overly critical.

Albert EinsteinAlbert Einstein as Plant



There's a story about a truck that got jammed under a bridge. All the experts were standing around racking their brains trying to figure out how they were going to get the truck out of there. A little boy came over and casually asked, "Why don't you let the air out of the tires?" In many cases, unconventional (or "out of the box") thinking may carry the day.

Creative, imaginative, unorthodox.

Solves difficult problems.

Is not interested in or ignores details.

Usually too preoccupied to communicate effectively.

Madeline Albright Madeline Albright as Resource Investigator

Resource investigator

Stanley Milgram started the 6 degrees of separation craze in the 1960s. He gave letters to 160 people in Omaha, Nebraska, and asked each one to send the letter to a friend or aquaitance who might know a particular stockbroker in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The letters got to the stockbroker in an average of 5 or 6 steps.

However, not all degrees are equal. Fully half of all the letters went through the hands of the same three people. Those three people were obviously resource investigators.

Extrovert, enthusiastic, communicative.

Explores opportunities.

Develops contacts.

May be overly optimistic.

Loses interest once the initial enthusiasm has passed.

Frederick Douglass Frederick Douglass as Shaper


This is the entrepreneur, the one who gets the ball rolling. Good to have around when things have gotten stagnant--when there has been too much success, for example.

Challenging, dynamic, thrives on pressure.

Has the drive and courage to overcome obstacles.

May provoke others.

Can hurt other people's feelings.

Marie Curie

Marie Curie as Specialist


Single-minded, self-starting, dedicated.

Provides knowledge and skills that are in short supply.

Contributes only on a narrow front.

Dwells on technicalities.

Overlooks the big picture.

Augusta Ada King Lovelace

Augusta Ada Lovelace as Team Worker

Team worker

Cooperative, mild, receptive, diplomatic.

Listens, builds, averts friction, calms the waters.

May be unassertive.

May be too timid to present own ideas, no matter how good they may be.

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2. Do a task & user analysis...

Task analysis:

Find out what users actually think about this project as well as what they do. The joint application design (JAD) or participatory design approach works best.

Task analysis methods:

  1. Bridge (Dayton, McFarland, Kramer, 1997)

  2. Use Cases (Constantine 1995)

  3. Task Scenarios (Lewis and Reiman 1993)

User Analysis:

Rubin (1994) and Dumas and Redish (1994)

A notation system:

Hix and Hartson (1993)

Re-engineer the job:

Straighten out the forms and the process.

Figure out how you can use the software to add value--for example, graphics programs have pens, brushes, typefaces, and also they let you do separations yourself and deliver them over modems to the print shop.

There are different approaches to the work. For example, online banking is a step-by-step approach (task-oriented), whereas a program such as PaintShop is exploratory, or non-linear.

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3. Find a good conceptual model...

Characteristics of conceptual models:

  • They are always formed. No one is going to come to your application with no expectations.

  • Once formed, conceptual models are sticky--they're hard to break, just like habits.

  • They have a primary effect on usability.

If the application's conceptual model matches the user's mental model, then the application will be easier to use and learn. If not, the user will have trouble learning the application, and once learned, getting beyond the novice level.

Use a brainstorming session to come up with the conceptual models. The obvious models will show up early in the session; the oddball models, which tend to be richer and more provocative, usually appear only after the team is ready to give up.

Once you have a dozen or so ideas, eliminate and consolidate until you have two or three good possibilities. Pick them based on:

  • How well they can be extended
    For example, a "fireplace" model for a creative writing application is fine for the contemplative aspects of creativity but not for the editing activities.

  • Whether they will be readily understood by the target audience
    For example, a toaster icon to indicate "new bank account" will amuse older employees who remember when banks offered irons and toasters to draw new customers, but will probably bewilder younger employees.

Once you have two or three good conceptual models, test them.

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4. Define the home window...

The home (main) window should:

  • Embody the conceptual model. For example, if the conceptual model is "telephone," the main window should look or act like a telephone.
  • Act as the user's starting point and (possibly) the ending point. The home window is the window on which the users start doing real work; they may end their task on the same window as well.

Like Internet home windows, a good application home window provides users with the first rungs on the ladder--it makes it easy for the  users to start.

For example, the "Document1" blank page in Microsoft™ Word for Windows provides an obvious starting point--a writer can simply start typing on the screen.

A ladder with a few missing rungs would be a word processor that offers a gray background with no insertion point at startup.

Having an obvious ending point is useful as well, since it provides closure.

There are two types of windows:

  1. Transient, impermanent, irregular, like the WinZip or SnagIt windows.
    Use brighter colors, bigger icons, obvious navigation--users don't come here often, so they need more help.
  2. Sovereign, permanent, regular, like the Word for Windows opening window.
    Use muted colors, smaller icons, sophisticated navigation--users are here every day and  eventually they'll see everything, no matter how small.

Color choices:

Choose the color scheme for an application carefully. Colors can sometimes convey a meaning on their own without any other clues (such as using red to indicate "danger"), but don't always translate across cultural boundaries. A poor choice of color can also make an otherwise perfectly good application difficult to use, as shown in the figure below. The button is almost invisible, even when the contrast and brightness are turned way up on your monitor.

Poor color choice

This is an actual screen shot from IBM's "RealCD" application

A couple of other rules of thumb to remember are that 1 out of every 12 men have trouble seeing red and green at the same time (colorblindness), and that no color combinations offer the same powerful contrast as black and white.

When developers take it upon themselves to change color schemes, the results can sometimes get quite strange. The following figure shows what happened when a developer decided to hard code the button colors in an application (the developer thought it looked "excellent"--no one else did).

Strange color scheme

Strangely colored buttons

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5. Define the menus & toolbars...

Development teams need graphic artists to create toolbar buttons (although not menus, usually). The toolbar buttons below are from an old version of the CompuServe online application. Note the childlike "crayon" palette and the large size of the individual graphics.

Old CompuServe buttons

Older version of CompuServe's toolbar buttons

This style is perfectly suited for a home application or for one that is used only occasionally. It's not appropriate for a business application, which should use a more sophisticated palette, or for an often-used application (the colors are too bright).

Here's another classic mistake that you, as a professional designer, can protect your clients against.

Badly done icons

Really badly done icons

The first four buttons on the toolbar above represent:

  • Send
  • Send without carriage returns
  • Send with quotes
  • Send with CIS quotes

The mistake? The foregrounds and backgrounds are reversed. The repeated (but background) image is used in the foreground and overwhelms the important, different images in the background. It's almost as if this is a Sunday comics section, and you're challenging your users to find the differences between the pictures.

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6. Create the user's path...

Dialog boxes and windows

Dialog boxes and windows move a user through a task. As a designer, you will probably not have much to say about the tasks or flows, but you can help your clients design better dialog boxes and windows.

Hard to understand dialog box Easier to read dialog box
This dialog box looks complicated and difficult to parse This dialog box is much easier to read

What's the difference between the two dialog boxes? The fields in the dialog box on the right have been aligned, making them easier to scan and making the relationships between fields easier to understand.

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7. Define the fields...

Bad labels

These "buttons" are just labels

Do NOT make your field labels look like buttons. Users will try to press them and assume that your buttons don't work.

Note: Many of the examples in this section of 14 Steps came from the now defunct Isys Information Architects Hall of Shame website.

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8. Brainstorm the icons...  

The Five Most Important Things About Icons:

  1. Pick shapes first, then color; color is secondary.
    Use muted colors for situations in which people look at the icons every day; use bright colors for icons that are seen and used only occasionally.
  2. Create families of icons.
    Don't create icons one at a time, as they come up in the application. Icons created on a piecemeal basis look like they were thrown together at the last minute. Create all of the icons at once for the whole application. That way they will all have a similar look and feel. Try and  use symbols or picture that relate to the industry the application fits into. For example, use checkbooks, coins, bills, and money in a banking application. Use kitchen utensils and appliances in a cooking application. You get the idea.
  3. Test the icons on other people (outside the team).
    You are too close to the project to be objective about your icon designs. Let people who are not working on the same project look at them and let you know what they think. Studies show that a "matching" test works very well for testing icons.

Use the "matching" test for your icons.

  1. Use visual figures of speech.
    If you've ever used the term "not bad" to mean something is good, then you've used a figure of speech known as a litotes (LIE-ta-tees). A litotes describes something by stating its opposite. For example, since a chain represents captivity, a broken chain represents freedom. Any image inside a circle with a slash through it is a litotes. Another method of representing an idea is a synecdoche (si-NEK-da-kee). A synecdoche is a picture that represents a whole, such as a chili pepper representing a Mexican restaurant. Finally, you can always use hyperbole (hy-PER-bolee), as in traffic signs that show an impossibly steep hill to represent an upgrade.

    Litotes, synecdoche, and hyperbole.

  2. Use idioms rather than metaphors.
    All idioms must be learned. Good idioms only need to be learned once. Designing icons can be one of the most difficult parts of any interface design. For example, how do you express the idea of compiling code in a metaphorical picture 16 pixels square? Why not use simple geometric shapes as icons? Once the users have learned the idioms used, they work just as well as metaphors.

Brainstorming icons

We have found that a great way to design your icon families is to play a game called "Iconary," which uses the rules from the game Pictionary, only with icons as the goal.

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9. Define the shortcuts...  

Look in these areas:

  • Keyboard shortcuts for touch typists.
    Touch typists don't want to take their hand off of the keyboard to make mouse clicks, it breaks their work flow. Put in as many keyboard shortcuts as you can.

  • Pop-up menus for expert users.
    Expert users will want to use pop-up menus (usually found by right-clicking the mouse on the application's main window or field) rather than searching for functions through toolbars or main menus.

  • Adaptive technologies for extraordinary environments.
    In what type of environment will this application be used? In some circumstances, the environment will play a crucial part in how the application runs. For example, the trading floor of a stock market is a relatively noisy place to work with distractions going on all around. You may want to build in sound effects or bright animations into the application in order to get the user's attention. However, the same application may not be suited for use in a quiet or subdued atmosphere such as a library or boardroom.

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10. Define the pushbuttons...

Good button design is critical:

In the following graphic, can you tell from the on-screen buttons whether this individual is in or out?

Bad pushbutton design

In the office or out?

Judging by the green (OK) color and the 3D raised surface look of the button, I'd say that this person is in the office. But I'd be wrong. This individual is actually out today. This is a badly designed button.

Fancy or non-typical buttons may not work:

In the following graphic, can you tell which are buttons and which are screen furniture?

Buttons or labels?

Buttons or labels?

Actually, the two pictures at the top are supposed to be labels, and the two items at the bottom are the only "live" parts of the application. Illogical labels combined with badly designed buttons will cause anger among users.

Make buttons look like buttons!

Unless you are designing a video game or other such application, users are going to expect push buttons to look like push buttons. On the graphic below, Save and Cancel are actually push buttons. Most users assumed they were menu items, and were surprised when they clicked on them.

Buttons that don't look like buttons

Pressing Altl-S or Alt-C had no effect on this window. You were required to know that you had to press Save or Cancel to to perform any action.

And what's THIS?

In the graphic below, the file cabinets and musical notes on the right side of the window are buttons. But who knew that? They look like buttons that are already pressed down. Users came to the conclusion that the buttons were "stuck" and that there was some type of error in the application.

Are these buttons stuck?

Are these buttons stuck down?

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11. Create the radio buttons, check boxes, and lists...

Scrollable lists

Text boxes with scroll bars are a good idea for longer lists. Users can scroll down the list to find the information they need. However, users do NOT want to scroll both horizontally AND vertically through a list to get the information they need.

Scrollable list

Can't see enough of the items on either list to make a choice

If the information on a list doesn't fit in the text box, either reformat the information or resize the list box. Don't make users scroll in multiple directions.

Radio buttons and checkboxes

Don't put radio buttons or checkboxes on raised panels. It makes the radio button or checkbox look like a pushbutton, and it's unnecessary and distracting.

Radio buttons

Are these pushbuttons, radio buttons, or checkboxes?

Radio buttons are good for mutually exclusive choices. If you don't have enough room on a window for the number of radio button choices, use a combo box instead. They serve the same function.

Checkboxes are good for situations where the user can select more than one thing at a time. Checkboxes are also used to answer "yes/no" questions. However, keep the question simple to avoid confusing the user.

What does this button mean?

Does this mean "Search for this file" or "Don't search for this file"?

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12. Define the tables, graphs, and spreadsheets...

Table and graphs

If the application uses graphs and charts, give your users the ability to toggle between listed spreadsheet data and a graphical representation of the data. They'll thank you for it.

Graph view Graph view of the same data

Users can click the Graph button to switch to the graph version...

and the Data button to go back to the table version

Data Points

Give your users the ability to see what the value is for any given point on a chart or graph. For example, in the graphic below, if you rest the mouse on any given point on the line, a pop-up window shows you the value at that point.

August, 1994 -- $2,359 December, 1994 -- $5,101 July, 1995 -- $7,724 January, 1996 -- $5,995 August, 1996 -- $4,505 December, 1996 -- $5,075 September, 1997 -- $6,255 January, 1998 -- $7,003 July, 1998 -- $10,679 January, 1999 -- $12,488 August, 1999 -- $16,999 December, 1999 -- $20,509 Graph

Give your users as much help as possible (hold your pointer over the points to see the underlying values)

This is really rather easy for a computer to do, and it will eliminate eye strain on the part of your users. Again, they'll thank you.


Use monospaced typefaces where ever text (and especially numbers) must line up in columns. Note that the numerals in most modern typefaces are monospaced, no matter whether the rest of the face is monospaced or proportional.

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13. Write the messages and online help...  

Type Choices

Graphic designers are often asked to come up with the proper choice of type for a given application. As graphic designers, they have an eye for what works and what doesn't work.

Bad type choice

When in doubt, call in a graphic designer

In the example above, someone should have consulted a graphic designer before forging ahead with the project.

A common mistake many people make is to use upper-case characters in labels and buttons in an attempt to make them more noticeable. However, all upper-case type looks like you're shouting and generally leaves users feeling chastised.


These radio button labels look like they're shouting at you

Back in pre-computer days, underlined text meant "italicize this text" to the typesetter who received a manuscript. These days, it essentially means the same thing with one minor addition--an internet user who sees underlined text automatically thinks "hyperlink" and will attempt to click the text and follow the link (if it is pertinent to what the user is trying to accomplish).

Are these hyperlinks or not?

Hyperlinks or not?

In the example above, the underlined text entries are not hyperlinks. And the internet addresses visible below the underlined text (which really should have been underlined and linked) are not hyperlinks, either. This is a very confusing situation.

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14. Look at what you've done and set up for the next release...

Why think about the next release?

  • Development kits and environments change.

  • Domains change.

  • Customers change the way they use your stuff. (Watch those lead users!)

  • You change.

Especially look at what you would change--and save--about your teams.

One thing to remember about teams and the individuals on a team: Although there has been an assumption that people are more or less interchangeable in jobs at say, McDonald's, they definitely are not interchangeable in high-tech design jobs.

The 1988 article "A field study of the software design process for large systems" in Communications of the ACM reports that the most successful teams had one or more very experienced members, but not just in their functional roles--also in their team roles. We quote:

"The constant need to share and integrate information suggests that just having smart people is not enough... Individual talent operates within the framework of these larger social and organizational processes [of coordinating and managing changes in large projects]. The influence of exceptional designers was exercised through their impact on their project members and their ability to create a shared vision to organize the team's work."

In other words, the team designs. Thank you for your time and attention.

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