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I am designing a very complex eco-system of apps.

I like to make sure I am up-to-date with the latest thinking, research and trends in app and UI/UX design. I find that there are many great articles, galleries and sources of information for common and mobile apps e.g.

However I find that there is a real lack of quality when looking for information and inspiration for complex, rich applications. The examples above are full of great examples of focused (often single purpose) apps. However I need to deal with another league in complexity.

What do I mean by complex? Data rich, data visualization, multiple apps working together, highly dense interfaces, many controls etc. Think Adobe Photoshop, Operating systems, financial trading system etc.

My question: Where can I find inspiration and insights relating to complex interfaces? And "What is the best way to keep up to date with the latest thinking in this domain?"

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I'd very much like to know the answer to this one too! –  Vitaly Mijiritsky Dec 3 '12 at 18:38
    
I always keep an eye on what Google is doing. I think it works as an example of complex applications functioning together. –  Yisela Dec 4 '12 at 1:52
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What do you think about starting a community delicious stack (or others link collection) for this topic? I have some links, but UXSE isn't for link collections ... –  FrankL Dec 6 '12 at 12:49
    
That could be quite a good idea. –  Jay Dec 6 '12 at 14:30
    
I think, every complex app is different. you should get back to the design table, and think. Whats the most important feature, what are the use cases, the user profiles.. Think through, sketch, do some mockups. After that, test. Ask people if they like it. how can it be better. then implement, and test again.. this way it will be more prefect, than relying on semi-related ideas, articles. –  csomakk Dec 8 '12 at 1:51

18 Answers 18

up vote 11 down vote accepted

While there are some blogs that cover a bit of this stuff, I think the best way to keep on top of it is to read the blogs and case studies covering the products themselves.

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+1 good collection –  FrankL Dec 11 '12 at 13:02
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Autodesk UX blog dux.typepad.com/dux –  FrankL Dec 11 '12 at 13:02

Like you said online resources such as inspiration galleries, blogs, magazines, and so forth. Twitter is always a great way to see what some of the big wigs and studios are up to. In addition, there's always a few books that come out time and time again that are worth a read, but like many books on technology they often become outdated as soon as they're printed. Moreover, I'd strongly suggest joining places such as MeetUp.com and search for local groups that get together and host nights where people in UX, development, and design speak and hang out.

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Thanks. Do you know of any good twitter feeds/users relevant to this? –  Jay Dec 4 '12 at 11:26
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This might be a little unconventional, and there isn't a single place to see everything put together that I know of, but check out some of the following:

  • Actual financial, analytics, and complex applications. Try things like Google Analytics, Kiss Metrics, Mint, Freshbooks, Quickbooks, Yahoo and Google Finance, Klout, Photoshop, Gimp, Inkscape, Blender, After Effects, GitHub, etc.
  • Similarly, try following some of the tech and startup blogs and looking at the designs of the products listed that fit your profile. TechCrunch, VentureBeat, ReadWriteWeb, etc.
  • Studying info graphics might help you develop design muscles for organizing complex information in a visually pleasing way. You can find good (and bad) examples all over the web.

Edit

  • You might also want to look at high density information design principles, which can be found on sites like:

  • Dynamic Diagrams

  • DoubleThink

Also check out:

Something to remember, though: Good design principles will still apply, no matter the type of application; only the context and constraints change. You can use almost any type of design for inspiration. For high-density enterprise interfaces, figure out what you really need to display by default and what you can progressively reveal. Reuse design patterns to minimize the learning curve. Use intelligent defaults. Just doing those things will carry you a long way.

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Thanks. The issue I have is the systems and interactions I am designing for are quite a bit more complex than Google Finance for example. Also, as a comment, it is quite difficult to find good infographics among the piles of bad. –  Jay Dec 4 '12 at 11:28
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good infoviz book -also in english m.taschen.com/pages/de/catalogue/design/all/04984/facts.information_graphics.htm –  FrankL Dec 4 '12 at 13:11
    
As someone who designs financial software, the issue that we have is that sometime it can be difficult to actually demo these applications without getting a login or account. Bank Simple was a good example of this - they showed a few screen shots for PR purposes, but it took months to get an actual login. –  Olivia Dec 4 '12 at 21:04

The following are a list of sites I visit weekly to see what's up and new. It is a mix of design, graphics, UX, resources. Their strength comes from following links in their articles, opening to door to more resources.

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Most of these are filled with "the 20 best lightboxes" kind-of-posts. Not really about complex web design I would say. (Although some posts are quite insightful in that, these are not the best examples.) –  Lode Dec 8 '12 at 17:42
    
@Lode I'd have to agree. This is what I was referring to when I said it was easy to find simple controls, website or mobile app inspiration. However truly complex applications and interface techniques is a lot harder. –  Jay Dec 10 '12 at 8:58
    
Admittedly I didn't find much compelling after a brief search on speckyboy.com, www.webanddesigners.com, djdesignerlab.com, and webdesignfan.com, pertaining to the question, but the other sites all had something of interest, and recently too. As a brief example of what can be found at these sites, there is an article about HTML5 APIs at Webappers. –  Shane Dec 11 '12 at 10:55
    
Design Modo covers On-device caching, something new for me. A brief set of suggestions for UX+SEO is at designrfix.com. This leads to the identity of a guest poster who works at a company which seems to specialize in this and might be worth getting in touch with. Six Revisions has a longer article covering how other companies, such as Dropbox, addressed their site design. –  Shane Dec 11 '12 at 10:57
    
One of my favorites, Noupe, has an interesting solution to dealing with more content than a mobile screen can show. It took me until the 3rd page to read about transitions and animations with CSS3 on Smashing Apps. How parallax can draw attention to content is discussed at webdesignerledger.com –  Shane Dec 11 '12 at 10:59

I feel for you, this is really quite a hard sector to find examples of generally because financial trading or for that matter anything that's 'highly complex' is usually seen as giving companies competitive advantage over their peers and therefore under strict NDA's. This is the main reason solutions and examples are rarely - if ever - shared by those who practice UX, design and build of the application they deliver and manage. Outside of the financial industry the most complex systems and interfaces tend to be either subscription services or applications used internally for business processes so again not really shown on the everyday sites most people have listed to date.

There are two ways I've found to actually see firsthand and hear about the challenges of designing such systems.

Firstly actually sign up to the services that are comparable to what you need to be aware of. For example most stock trading services such as IG index or cmc markets have trial / low risk accounts you can register for to see and feel 'complex' data in action.

Secondly, maybe this one applies more if you are close to a hub of activity - I'm in London - check out the local community events listed for UX/IA design but more so front-end development and search technology meet-ups listed on sites such as eventbrite and similar, they get lots of people talking about the work they do and challenges they face often from companies specializing in highly technical work that aims to solve the sort of problems you describe.

And lastly trawl twitter and message boards like this one to find out the companies people actually work for and make contact with them and others that they work with directly - almost everyone in this industry is really friendly particularly if you ask questions that are related to problems that they solve day in day out.

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+1 for looking at comparable services. There's something to be said for looking for ideas outside your domain too, but other people that are solving the same problem as you can be a great source of inspiration. –  Mark D Dec 6 '12 at 13:16

Look, you're already designing an app ecosystem, so you're a busy person. We can keep throwing sites at you, but I'm going to assume you already know what sites you like. The truth of the matter is you need a system that will allow you to keep up with everything you come across, so you can collect and curate what you find. To those ends, I recommend a few services that will allow you to try out all these different systems / sites and will make separating the wheat from the chaff easier:

  • An RSS Reader like Google Reader will allow you to keep up with blogs at your pace, and you can start articles when something sounds really good and worth keeping.
  • Ifttt (i.e. if this, then that) is a "service glue" system so you can take efforts you make in other systems and translate them over to other systems (e.g. DropBox, Evernote, Twitter), where you might encourage better conversation on the topics at hand.
  • Finally, Pinterest is a great visual bookmarking system, which sadly doesn't work with Ifttt (yet), but it has the advantage of allowing you to look at a page of everything you've collected on a given topic so far, without a lot of cruft.

You're only as good a designer as what actually sticks in your memory, so give your memory a helping hand with these apps.

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As you've found (and the answers here confirm) people prefer to talk about simple designs.

Simplicity is

  • prettier
  • easier to evaluate
  • aspirational

Simple is awesome when it's appropriate. But complex is so much more challenging! Complex projects are often where the biggest gains can be made for the client.

My go to sites

Two sites that I've found connect to this realm of design in a specific way. I stay plugged into these on a regular basis and often find myself reevaluating my past decisions with the insight I gain.

Little Big Details
The specifics pointed out here are not complex in and of themselves. It's in the accumulation and interaction of all these "little big details" that a complex app can shine.

UI Patterns
This site aims to act as a library of design patterns to solve common UI challenges. Some ideas/patterns are simple (like slideshows). Some ideas are more complex (like push and pull in web design). Some of the articles are more conceptual and valuable in a bigger sense (like optimization vs innovation).

Info visualization
For those projects where info visualization becomes a part of the problem (as is often does with complex UIs), I turn to these very focused sites.

Information is Beautiful
Information Aesthetics
Flowing Data

Honorable mentions

These sites have occasional value for complex problems.

Mobile Patterns
Smashing Magazine
A List Apart
Jakob Nielsen's site

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+1 for A List Apart & Jakob Nielsen. Both will guide you as to what works and what doesn't work. –  DaveP Dec 10 '12 at 16:58

I feel your pain. My career has been entirely in enterprise web app design. I scour the same wonderful sources of knowledge and inspiration out there and have found this kind of work totally underrepresented.

Three reasons why come to mind:

  • This type of work is unglamorous and overlooked.
  • Design is often a lower priority compared to the engineering in complex applications and innovation is lacking. Just look at most internal tools of any system and you'll agree.
  • The innovation of leading systems are experienced in their actual use, rather than in their visual appeal. Screenshots and descriptions do not express how good they are.

The third leads me to my answer:

You have to find and USE the best (and worst) software out there.

Sign up for a trial or purchase a complex software product and give it a test drive. Draw your inspiration from how the software designers solved administrative tasks, data visualizations' and the like.

Here are some of my favorites:

Omniture siteCatalyst The most impressive web based tool I have ever used. It blew away every notion I had about account management, reporting and visualization. They all happen on the same interface.

Outlook: Dig into the feature set of outlook. Note how every feature can be used solo or integrated together into a CRM, scheduling and messaging tool at once.

MailChimp

Mint or other banking management tools.

Gmail (IMHO for better or for worse) It's interesting how they integrate let you to manage your profile and preferences and their products.

Blogging Software Wordpress and Tumblr are both great examples of complex software. I have been digging Tumblr a lot recently. It's modern and friendly and the interface is doesn't try to be anything more than what it intends to.

MindBodyOnline The next time you go to yoga or the gym, step around the counter and watch them sign you in. It's probably MBO and the reason is because it's the best in its class.

How about StackExchange? Pretty complex and effective.

Music management applications like grooveshark (good IMHO) and iTunes (Bad IMHO)

And so on....

Complex software is all around us. We run our lives and businesses with it. Until smashing compiles a list like this one day, deep dive into every app you encounter and see if you find inspiration.

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Thanks Benny for the spell check. –  Itumac Dec 10 '12 at 22:53
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I'd add to this the online version of Outlook (Outlook Web Access), music services, especially Grooveshark, and other webmail services, specifically Yahoo and Outlook.com. Also Skydrive and Google Docs. –  Vitaly Mijiritsky Dec 12 '12 at 7:34
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I forgot about grooveshark! And I am on it a lot. Proves it's good. –  Itumac Dec 12 '12 at 14:38
    
If you think that about SiteCatalyst, you have a very different set of standards to me for good UX. I use it 6 hours a day, and I've had to write a set of tampermonkey scripts just to make the standard workflows sane. –  Racheet Jan 24 at 17:41

I think you need to search for multi-device UI or multi-screen UI. I think the concept is so new (or at least was only the interest of large corporations) that it's difficult finding a dedicated website that embraces what you looking for.

These are probably the best articles I could find are:

And listen to Bret Victor - this guy is at the forefront of UI design:

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Basically most complex apps are in a class of their own. If I were designing one, I would draw inspiration from any somewhat similar systems, but usability test any designs. For latest thinking I would just turn to any recent complex apps. For not so latest, I would check the scientific literature. Do remember that if you have a lot of resources, you can usability test any complex designs you find in the wild. This can be a lot cheaper than developing your own designs and testing them.

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First, allow me to share something that may satisfy your thirst for information:

Envisioning Information by Edward Tufte

This is a book and books are not "kept up to date" as websites are, but some truths do not expire. In the race to "keep up to date" consider the body of information that is already out there on the topic of communicating with people. Software did not change the fact that we are human and have cognitive limitations.

The biggest challenge for any UX professional (arguably, any professional) is developing heuristics and gut feelings that come from years of experience in doing the work as opposed to reading about it.

I say all this to caution against the pressure of "keeping up to date." Most of that pressure is imaginary, and the associated stress very real. The best "keep[ing] up to date" that you can do is to keep doing the work you love.

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If you agree that on some level complex systems go hand-in-hand with complex problems (or complex problem domains), then perhaps it makes sense to tap into the research and development community to see what they are up to. From your description, you may be specifically interested in the Visual Analytics community.

From a recent call-for-papers for the IEEE VAST Conference, Visual Analytics is defined as:

Visual Analytics is the science of analytical reasoning supported by highly interactive visual interfaces. People use visual analytics tools and techniques in all aspects of science, engineering, business, and government to synthesize information into knowledge; derive insight from massive, dynamic, and often conflicting data; detect the expected and discover the unexpected; provide timely, defensible, and understandable assessments; and communicate assessments effectively for action. The issues stimulating this body of research provide a grand challenge in science: turning information overload into the opportunity of the decade. Visual analytics requires interdisciplinary science, going beyond traditional scientific and information visualization to include statistics, mathematics, knowledge representation, management and discovery technologies, cognitive and perceptual sciences, decision sciences, and more.

As a starting point, look at the annual VAST conference competition to see the scale/complexity of the problems that are currently "interesting" to the research community. Maybe even consider attending one of the conferences, and interacting with some of the sponsoring companies (maybe pick up trial versions of software etc).

I think half the battle is figuring out who is actually developing software solutions in these often highly niche product areas. Conferences (IEEE VisWeek as one example) and user groups can help to bridge that gap. Blogs will mainly try to condense information, which may not always be what you want.

Lastly, if you want a completely different point of view, a book was published recently (August 2012) that focuses on the interaction techniques and interfaces used in science fiction films. It is titled "Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction". I haven't personally read the book, so I can't comment on its contents, but here is a short description from the publisher's site:

Many designers enjoy the interfaces seen in science fiction films and television shows. Freed from the rigorous constraints of designing for real users, sci-fi production designers develop blue-sky interfaces that are inspiring, humorous, and even instructive. By carefully studying these “outsider” user interfaces, designers can derive lessons that make their real-world designs more cutting edge and successful.

So, my suggestion is to keep up with the latest complex problems, and see how people try to solve them, instead of trying to sift through hundreds of applications and blogs and distill some UI/UX trend. I would wager that every truly complex problem requires a unique solution.

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If I understand you correctly, you are at the point where each atomar problem is solved satisfyingly, and the difficult part is sticking it all together - or in short: it's all about the glue.

Solved atomar problem: User has to define a coordinate within a valid scope. Will you give him two text boxes to enter X and Y or have him drag a crosshair on a XY-graph?

Now, unfortunately, finding glue is pioneer's work. Some implement it as Ribbon Bars, dockable Windows,...Pioneers are Microsoft, Adobe and others in their league, who will not share their research result before their product is on sale (or patented). Maybe you will find others who apply plain common sense and produce another implementation of "Context Sensitive Tooling", or "Workflow based UI", but I have never come across anything like what you're looking for.

So, since a lot of the current knowledge is in commercial applications, look at the more complex ones (3d Studio, Maya, Premiere, After Effects, various Audio sequencers like Cubase, FruityLoops,...).

I really hope your question will be answered, would be great to have a good read about that.

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I think you just need to look around in nature to get inspire. I wonder how cleverly things arranged with simplicity. Make things as simple as you could and this should be your real goal. You can also take inspiration from existing interfaces through experience them but I must say Nature has too much in it to explore and get inspire.

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Tworivers.com/blog posts very specific design solutions with screen shots for complex applications as it is tworivers.com focus.

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I look for interesting things on the "usual suspects" online magazine sites we all know and love. I notice the cool things in the tools I use. Apple's products generally seem built around users and human behavior and so I probably take a lot away from that. I'm also mindful of what Google is doing with their web apps, I usually find those experiences pretty lightweight and not taxing at all. Beyond that, I do not actively work to research and uncover the latest and hottest trends. My hope is that letting what I know about myself and human behavior inform my decisions and be my guide will yield good things.

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This is a list of sites that I visit every morning to get fresh concepts and ideas. The key is to do this as often as you can, and look for referents in different disciplines.

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The best source is a collection of material one gathers during daily work.

There are thousands of people filling thousands of sources out there. Finding the blog or feed for ones self I think is not possible because there will always be a "better" or "more up to date" site one will stumble across.

In the past I had about 60 different pages I was following with my rss reader. I eventually gave up gathering more sites and just started gathering blogposts (in my reading list) while surfing through the web. I take scans out of magazines and take gif screencasts when stumbling across good UIs. Everything lands in Evernote with a brief summary. Now I have my own source I can always come back to. It is always up to date and contains information which I have in the back of my head.

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