RT Cunningham


The Shortcut and the Path of Least Resistance in User Interface Design

shortcut Why do interface designers make their designs complicated? It’s because they’re looking at their designs from the wrong perspective. They’re more concerned with aesthetics than usability. This lack of usability is what prompted the first shortcut, back when the command line was the king of everything.

Microsoft still hasn’t learned any lessons, even after years of complaints. The settings interface for Windows 10 is slow, cumbersome and has too many screens to navigate through for even the simplest of tasks.

The Shortcut is about Cutting a Corner Intelligently

In the real world, cutting corners is dangerous when we’re talking about areas like construction. Skimping on materials reduces integrity. In other areas, it makes sense to find or create a shortcut.

The picture I found for this article is a perfect illustration. The shortcut is faster and more efficient than the original design. It’s all about the user experience, even if the user is just someone walking home from school.

Human beings will always follow the path of least resistance when they’re in a hurry. This applies equally to the real and online worlds. The number of steps to walk, keys to press or clicks of the mouse will decide if a shortcut is a good idea.

The Goal is to Make a Shortcut Unnecessary

When is a shortcut unnecessary? When it takes more effort to remember it (or look it up) than it does to press a key or click a mouse. Some things are, of course, more natural than others.

Let’s take two classic examples: Control-C and Control-V, copy and paste. The finger movements on the keyboard seem way more natural than clicking on “file” and then “copy” and then “file” and then “paste”.

Way back when Microsoft Windows didn’t exist, the graphical user interfaces available for DOS and UNIX variants weren’t very efficient. Most were simply designed to display one keyboard shortcut or another. My experiences from those days are clearly etched in my memories.

I’m a firm believer that a shortcut, or a hyperlink, should take no more than one key press (or combination key press) or mouse click to see and no more than two to activate. This is how I design everything I work on.

If you look at the top of this page on a mobile device, you’ll see a menu button. One click and the entire menu appears. Each hyperlink takes an additional click. Even the social icons activate with one click. The social shares need additional clicks but I have no control over that.

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By RT Cunningham
October 15, 2017