Your Questions: When do you do UI & Ajaxify?

Have I not answered your question yet? Don’t worry, I plan to get to all of them. I suck at email, but I’m learning the discipline to manage all this stuff. Please bear with!

Today’s question is one I get a lot, actually. It’s not quite the same as the UI workflow question I answered earlier this week, so I wanted to tackle it separately.

I suspect that Chris Hartjes is humoring me, but he writes in:

When building a web site that you know will eventually have all the CSS + Ajax goodness on it, is it better to start with the nice interface first or build the functionality first and worry about the pretty interface later?

I come up with the UI first, of course.

Without a UI, you don’t know what to build.

If you think you do, then you’re just running off a template that got into your head from experience. Which means your software will be just like other software. Which means… why would people use it, again?

We didn’t build our time management tracking system like the all the other time tracking apps, only to redo it later. We made it different, from the ground up.

What makes software different

All the magic that makes freckle great comes from knowing the basic UI ahead of time: how people enter time. Getting that part right took the most time of anything.

If we’d shipped it and it made you create clients, then projects, then tasks before you logged time, who would give a shit about it?

And how would we have possibly thought to go back and undo all that?

Once you build something, you get stuck in “optimization” mode. You stop asking the big assumption-busting questions, because hey, there’s this concrete thing right in front of you. It’s easier to apply bandaids than to go back and rip it all apart.

Pretty is as pretty does? No. Me-tooism is as me-tooism does.

The mistake, of course, is assuming that “pretty” is what sets software apart. It’s not, really. Of course, most people act as if it is, building the same variations on the same software over and over again, with slightly different appearance.

All forum software is the same. All email software is the same. Almost all web-based project management tools are just like Basecamp, give or take a couple features.

That’s what you get if you don’t work on the UI first.

The UI *is* the product.

But, I’m an interface designer! Of course I think that!

By the way, I didn’t start out as an interaction designer.

I came to be a believer in the power and importance of interface by way of web app development.

I started out doing “pretty web pages,” and then I learned how to program your standard web apps, and then I realized that I was on the wrong course. And I decided to change that course.


  1. hear hear!

    "The UI is the product."

    I couldn’t agree more. I usually say:

    "For the user, the interface IS the program"

    Which seems hard to comprehend for a developer. It took me like 15 yrs or so before I I somehow stopped seeing the UI as an afterthought. And I have my roots in game development, so I don’t know where it went wrong.

    Keep up the good posts Amy!

  2. Heather says:

    I am starting to branch out from print design to web design. My husband and I are building a new website and I had no idea where to begin. He suggested I start with the UI and sketch some things out in HTML. I hit a roadblock before I even began. Then he sent me your article "Your Questions: Amy’s UI Workflow." Seeing your sketches on paper freed my mind and I’ve been able to wrap my head around every bump and turn a user may take on a given web page.

    So now my UI is fully under development and one day I will be able to sit down and tell my husband exactly when he needs to build, just as you recommend.

    "I come up with the UI first, of course.

    Without a UI, you don’t know what to build."

    This article is a breath of fresh air in a whole new world for me. Thanks!

  3. Yeago says:

    Disagree completely.

    I think that the task of ‘figuring out how people [use your webapp]’ is the functionality. Once that has been established, the design work can shape it all up. I find that letting design lead the UI just leads to (costly) design band-aids for missing or misinterpreted function.

  4. I am a developer. I’m starting to develop a BaseCamp-like web app. I planned to start coding it before involving some designers & usability gurus to improve UXP.

    That was the plan. However, I was thinking that my first lines of code could go against uxp, building something hard to refactor then.

    Thanks Amy – you prove that I have to involve the whole team of designers & uxp gurus before coding anything.

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  6. Arya says:

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