A simplified user interface (SUI) is a representation of an interface that focuses on the essentials by stripping away temporarily unimportant elements.
When used in learning materials, SUI graphics can aid in creating clearer, more memorable instruction. There are other benefits as well, which I’ll cover below.
Keepin’ it Simple
As an instructional designer at TechSmith, my job is to create and deliver helpful content for anyone that wants to learn our software. These materials typically come in the form of written guides and video tutorials. I aim to design clear, efficient materials that boost user success without asking for too much of a user’s time. But software can be complicated. In a typical user interface, there are dozens of buttons to click, labels to read, and graphics to decipher. How can I keep a viewer focused on what’s important for this particular lesson? In past videos, I’ve made vigilant use of on-screen callouts and zoom-and-pan animations to direct attention and reduce visual noise, respectively. And now I’ve recently started to sprinkle in some SUI as well.
An Attempt at Future-Proofing
TechSmith has committed to rapidly releasing software updates – which is great because our users get the functionality they need quickly. However, sometimes the frequency of releases can inadvertently make help materials visually outdated. It can be challenging to keep content – especially video tutorials – up to date.
In the above case, the User Assistance team felt like the instruction wasn’t really hurt by these UI inconsistencies, so we let this one go. But there’s always the possibility that someone might come across this tutorial and dismiss it as irrelevant, simply because the UI in the video doesn’t match the UI in the application exactly. So, what if we designed the tutorials to be able to hold up against any future UI tweaks? The hope is that even with rapidly evolving apps, we can present a picture of what it’s like to use the product, even if the tutorial doesn’t perfectly mirror the ever-changing interface. Here’s a recent video overview (2:20) – made with SUI: Note: There are some references to other tutorials in this video that won’t make much sense, since the video is out of context.
How it’s Done
Now comes the part where I share how I make my SUI graphics, and also how I animate them in video tutorials. This section could certainly be expanded into its own blog post, but I’ll hit the highlights as best as I can. To create the graphics themselves, I use Adobe Illustrator. Any graphics program will work, but I use Illustrator for two specific reasons – it’s a breeze to make flat, crisp shapes and it’s super easy to manage a complicated group and layer structure. I should note that you don’t have to be particularly creative or a “graphics pro” to make SUI images. Just start with the actual UI and then begin simplifying, bit by bit. The process is fairly mechanical.
Here are some important tips, when making SUI for video animation:
- Set your canvas (or artboard, in Illustrator) to the size of your produced video. In our case, our video tutorials are 854x480px. Then, make sure you preview your graphics at 100% regularly while working.
- Keep your layers and groups named and ordered so it’s easy to tell what’s what. Things can get complicated quickly, especially if you’re trying to animate things like clicks and hover states.
- Save images as PNGs that preserve transparency. These are the easiest to work with when animating. (I use Camtasia to make the videos – more on that in a minute.)
- You’ll want to make a separate mouse graphic that can be animated over top of the rest of your graphics.
So, you may be thinking “That’s a pretty involved process!” But even though these can take a little time to create up front, I’m building a library that can easily be reused and lightly tweaked for future tutorials. Also, these assets can be used by other teams at TechSmith. We share graphics like these with Marketing, for example. Once I have my bank of images to work with, I start a new Camtasia project.
Starting with my first scene, I add the images, one-by-one to the timeline. Typically, I work my way from left to right to sync the images up with the narration track. Once I have some of that set, I add the mouse PNG to a track above the images. And whenever I need the mouse to move, I drop in an animation. In between scenes, I’ll typically fade out to white before fading the next image in. I like the break this type of transition provides.
Using SUI is probably not essential in most cases, and you can never really go wrong using the actual UI. But here are some situations when using SUI could be beneficial:
- When you suspect stripping away extra noise will help drive home your learning objectives more effectively.
- When the video (or graphics) need to have a long shelf life and you anticipate frequent small UI tweaks.
- When you need to re-use similar bits across multiple tutorials. (We used the “File > Connect mobile device…” example seen above in five different tutorials.)
- When you need to create localized versions of the tutorial. In some cases, changing the text in your source graphics may be easier than recording the localized interface.