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Wrapping Up FileMaker DevCon 2012 Miami

Every year FileMaker Inc. puts on a four-day Developer’s Conference in the US. Its purpose is to bring the FileMaker developer community together to explore new features, learn about an aspect of the program in-depth from an expert, find out what other people are doing, and generally share knowledge of all things FileMaker.

This year it was held at the spectacular hotel Fontainebleau Miami Beach. The weather was hot, the pools and the beach were fantastic, and the hotel drink and food prices were as shockingly high as the skirts worn by the female nightclub-goers. Oh, and of course, there was lots of FileMaker going on too. It’s always a great time to meet and share with other developers and generally stuff your brain with as much information as you can consume in four days.

Here’s the splashy Opening Keynote video.

This year my focus at DevCon was on interface design. With the recently-released FileMaker 12, we’ve been given a number of new and long-awaited design tools to help create layouts like never before. (Thank you, Heather Winkle, Product Manager of User Experience at FileMaker Inc.!) But it’s not just about having the tools and the potential, it’s up to us to design interaction that is useful, engaging and satisfying.

The message was that “Design” is not something you do after a system has been developed. Rather, interface design is an integral part of the development process, and determining the design greatly affects the usability–and ultimately the effectiveness–of any system you develop. In other words, design is not the window-dressing on the system, it IS the system.

Design can enhance the meaning of the information, or obscure the purpose of the application and frustrate users. Here are some principles to follow:

• Purpose: The purpose of each screen should be clear and easy to understand. Users should quickly be able to figure out what the layout is for and take action.

• Hierarchy: Each screen should have a clear, well-defined hierarchy of information. This helps users zero in on their most-needed information.

• Size: Size conveys importance. You can make more important information larger—often much larger—than less important information. This also makes it easier for the user to focus on what’s important on the screen at a glance.

• Colour: You can enhance the presentation of information using the judicious use of colour. However, be careful because too much colour can easily become distracting and difficult for the user to process.

• Proximity and Grouping: Items that are close together should be logically related to one another, as the proximity of two or more objects leads our brains to naturally assume a relationship between them. Grouping fields together can segment the workflow and further helps users to find information easily.

• Depth: Layouts should have depth. Gradients and shaded objects or text enhance visual appeal and mimic the way objects look in the real world, making your application look less flat and two-dimensional. Allow more important elements to come forward, and less important elements to recede.

• Design Patterns and Grids: Your solution may be unique, but you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Use common design patterns and the Apple Human Interface Guidelines to capitalize on models that users are already familiar with. Use grids as a framework for how information will be presented. Designing on a grid helps maintain grouping, spacing and consistency across different screens.

• Whitespace: Make sure that the layout is not crowded with too many objects. It’s better to have more screens that are concise in their design and purpose, than one large screen that tries to cram every type of information onto it. Let your layouts breathe.

• Consistency: Use a consistent design model throughout your application. In other words, think your system through for all the different kinds of screens you might need to create, and apply your methodology the same way in all parts of the system. Once users become familiar with the presentation of information and the actions of objects in one area, they can count on other parts of the system working the same way.

Human visual perception is amazing, but each task we ask it to do adds to the cognitive load of users. Every bit of information that they see takes some energy to process. At a certain point, if they get overloaded, they’ll become frustrated and give up. That’s why so many of the above principles are focused on clarifying the purpose and presentation of information, to keep the user’s cognitive load low.

The bottom line is that the most effective applications are the ones that are developed with design in mind. Design doesn’t consist of throwing a few graphics or colour in at the end of development. It’s about figuring out what users want and giving it to them in a way that facilitates their taking action. What good are features if users can’t or won’t use them? Making design an integral part of the development process will lead to not only more beautiful applications, but better ones as well.

Beyond the theory, there were lots of technical tidbits presented at DevCon on how to apply the principles using the new FileMaker features. I’m excited to use the new design tools in FileMaker 12 for upcoming FileMaker and FileMaker Go projects this year! I’m already working away on redesigning some legacy systems in FileMaker 12. As always, it was great to have the opportunity to share and catch up with FileMaker friends.

Thanks to Heather Winkle, Susan Prosser, Matt Petrowsky and all the other speakers for their informative sessions. I look forward to next year’s DevCon in San Diego, CA from August 12-15.

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