Pretty Ugly: how will your user interface be remembered?

Many years ago, I worked on a small intranet project that displayed output from a number of Crystal Reports. Remember Crystal? I spent many happy days working with the late nineties version of their software, which was quite pioneering at the time.

Crystal Reports was the grand-daddy of today’s Microsoft PowerBI. You could connect it to a variety of data sources, including using those troublesome ODBC drivers, to pull data from databases then use an interface that was a cross between Word and PowerPoint to lay out content. Its most powerful feature was the way you could group together output into sections, and while fiddly to get everything lined up – before functions like snap-to-grid were invented – it was quite powerful.

Most of the effort between my colleague and I was spent on getting the reports’ content correct and then aligned nicely on the page. Design? Styling? Pah, we were coders, not UI specialists. But we did borrow the client’s corporate branding – which was green – to style the navigation elements, dropped in a logo, used the secondary brand colours in the right places and after testing we were just about there.

However, in an act of reckless, wanton creativity, my colleague, over a lunch break or less, created a little “home” icon based on the classic house silhouette. Using a little bit of client-side browser scripting, he made the window in the icon change to a yellow colour when the mouse was hovered over the image; like a light coming on in the house.

Our home icon was a little like this. With a window I recall. And it was green

It was such a menial, barely-noticeable change, but it rounded off our modest work nicely. After a few previews and sign-off from our client, we then formally launched it on their intranet. After a few days, some feedback was sought via email. With so much focus and effort on the figures in the report, we expected a deluge of enquiries around the numbers, particularly as they were sales-related, but the actual feedback surprised us.

“Love the little house!” said one. “The light comes on when you click it – brilliant!” said another. Hang on a minute. All that work on the reports, all the testing, working hours with the client’s accounts team, tedious editing within Crystal and our core userbase only notices a small UI feature that was merely an afterthought?

Obvious as it might sound, the moral of the tale here is that it may be the smallest details in your digital project that leave the longest lasting impression. Functionality must be delivered evenly with the user interface. Your app might be the last word in content and functionality but if the user experience is poor, it’s all your end users will remember.

No doubt this Oracle system is rich in detail and functionality. But how would you remember the user experience?

The user experience (UX) is beyond a key feature of our digital work these days. It’s arguably more important than the application itself; however functional it is, it will have no future if it is poor to use.

My own learning from the Crystal Reports story was that our work, while useful, had not moved the game on. On reflection, nearly 20 years later, I think our users could get the data elsewhere if needed and merely accessing it on an intranet wasn’t especially fulfilling. The numbers were always well known and documented – the data in Crystal was pulled from another system, after all – so what did our site add? Nothing, which is why its most memorable feature was a swappable GIF image created during a lunchbreak.

Look at your work objectively and consider at length what the defining and thus most memorable aspects of the UX is. It could be all your users remember of it.


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