|My current UI - labeled.|
So first question first.
Why should I customize my UI?
When I ask most people why they haven't done anything about their UI, they will generally retort with a question of their own - Why should they? What's the point?
Others might have considered it before, but have found themselves intimidated by the sheer amount of addons available out there, or did not want to bother figuring out how to set them up.
Firstly, and fortunately, dealing with addons - if the right ones - is not a difficult task. You don't want to let the thought that it might be difficult to stop you from customizing your interface. You can find almost any addon at the Curse addon site, and easily download them, remove them, or update them with their client.
Secondly, if you're any serious about playing WoW, you need a custom UI. And when I say "custom UI," I mean an interface that is tailor-made for you - and who else to do that job right but you? At level 80, once you start doing serious PvP or getting into raids, the default Blizzard interface will start becoming inefficient. Clunky. You want an interface that is clean and shows you only what you need to see - the rest gets in the way. Having this sort of UI and making it so that you are fully comfortable with it will allow you to focus less on anything that is keeping you from performing well. Additionally, it will help you see things you could not have seen without any customization.
Let's use an example: I use Grid combined with GridManaBars. When I'm in a raid or a battleground, this addon allows me to see the HP and mana of everyone there in a nice, clean frame. I like this a lot more than restricting myself to seeing only the people in my party - not to mention Blizzard's frames show portraits more than what actually matters, health and mana. Additionally, Grid automatically knows that I'm a Druid and that therefore, I can remove curses and poisons. Because of this, if someone in my group is affected by either, it will display the debuff icon on the appropriate player's frame, with the debuff type's color appearing as a small square in one of the corners (in this case, purple for curses and green for poisons).
In PvE, this is usually a healer's job - but in battlegrounds and PuGs, this becomes a very effective tool (and not all healers can remove these types of debuffs). Grid shows me who needs an off-heal, decursing, or who might need an innervate tossed their way, provided I can afford it. Not to mention that it allows you to assess the general state of the group as well. Grid also fades a player's frames when he is out of your cast range - this is extremely useful for healers, so that they don't have to click on a player and cast a spell only to see a big red message say "Player is out of range" flash on the screen.
Now that I have [hopefully] convinced you to start customizing your UI, let's look at the essential addons I use, in alphabetical order.
Addon Control Panel -
You know you’ve got too many addons when you need an addon to manage them. Ok, well, not really. If you’ve ever delt with addons before, you know that to [de]activate them, you need to log out and do so at the character screen. With Addon Control Panel, you can do it easily ingame without ever having to relog. It’s a simple utility, but it gets useful when you’re juggling between which addons to use or just working on your interface.
Afflicted3 tracks enemy cooldowns, such as Vanish, Counterspell, or the PvP trinket, and displays their remaining time before they’re off cooldown again on your screen. You can customize how the cooldown bars look, where they are, how they are categorized, and which cooldowns to even show. This addon can become invaluable to you if you’re a PvPer. It’s useless to you if you only PvE, but if you do both, it will never get in the way because the bars won’t show until an enemy has used a cooldown, and obviously that’ll never happen in an instance.
Oh, Bartender, how I love thee. Bartender is an awesome action bar mod. It will let you do whatever you want with your action bars, let you put them wherever you wish, let you customize how they change when you shift (if you’re a Druid) or switch stances (if you’re a Warrior). One of my favorite things about this addon is how it lets you keybind whatever button you like - just hover over it with your mouse, press the key[s] of your choice, and .. voilà. With the default Blizzard bars, you cannot bind any key located on the top action bar. I cannot stress how much I think keybinds are important. I’ll definitely be making a post about them later.
Deadly Boss Mods -
DBM is a great addon for PvE and PvPers alike. What it’ll do is give you a warning each time a boss is using, or is about to use, a certain ability (depending on whether it’s triggered by a timer or the boss’s HP). Some boss abilities are on cooldowns and it’ll show you those as well. It will also tell you things like when an Arathi Basin base is about to be captured, or when a flag in Warsong Gulch is going to respawn. Additionally, you can customize it to give you warnings of your own.
Elkano's BuffBars -
I don’t like the default buff display. It gets in the way when you have a lot of buffs, and it’s hard to see what’s going on. With EBB I can move my buffs wherever I want them and make them look however I want. I can also separate them into groups, which is something I’ve become quite fond of.
I like to have normal buffs and auras show up on the upper left-hand corner of my screen. I don’t make them big because they’re not important once I'm buffed. Next to them, I have Heals & Abilities in green - things like Rejuvenation and Barkskin show up there. And next to that, Procs, in purple. Eclipse, Nature’s Grace, trinket procs – they all show up there, easy to see but not in the way.
Debuffs show up in red on the top right. Lately I also added a place for target debuffs (only mine). They show up on in blue-green a little to the left of the center of my screen, which is usually where my target would be, not far from my eyes. It helps me remember when to refresh DoTs and such (I don’t like the Squawk & Awe Moonkin addon, I find it ugly and clunky).
Omen Threat Meter -
A must for raiders. Not useful for healers, however, as even though they also generate threat, they’ll hardly ever target bosses - not to mention that if they pull agro, that’s the tank’s fault. If you’re a tank or DPS, though, this addon is a baby. Omen will show you the threat you’re generating as well as everyone else’s. It’ll also display your threat-per-second (TPS), so if you’re close to 100% threat and your TPS is higher than the tank’s, you might want to slow down a bit. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve saved myself from aggroing thanks to this addon.
Shows all your cooldowns. Get it! It’s way more informative than that tiny spiral - it’ll replace it with an actual timer, and by default it’ll even make an ability flash when it comes off a long cooldown.
Pitbull is a unit frame addon. A popular alternative is X-Perl, which I used before. At the time, Pitbull4 didn’t exist yet, and Pitbull3 was simply too complicated for me to bother with the customization. Thankfully, Pitbull4 is much, much more user-friendly than its predecessor, and far more customizable than X-Perl.
It’s hard to go over all of the benefits of a unit frame mod, because there are a lot. So let’s just start with the beginning. Blizzard frames = suck. They’re way up in the left-hand corner and you can hardly see your health and mana bars. I like my bars at the lower center of my screen - they’re right where I can see them, which is extremely useful for PvP and PvE alike. It’s a hassle to go out of your way to see your health/mana status.
Additionally, I make my health bar very thick. This is more of a PvP preference but it’s generally useful in raids as well. There’s also all sorts of nifty things you can make this addon do, like glow based on the debuff type placed on you.
Quartz is a cast bar mod. If you’re a caster - get it. It’s extremely customizable and it looks good. Blizzard cast bar = suck! Quartz can do a lot more than just show you what you're casting, as well. This includes things like a cooldown spark, displaying buffs on your target and focus, and more if you choose. You’ll thank me later.
Everyone sees Recount reports all the time from overenthusiastic DPSers wanting to show off their damage. Recount records practically everything in a fight, which is a great tool after a raid. If you’re a DPSer, you can check it to see which abilities gave you the most damage, and compare to how well you perform in the same situation but with another glyph, or rotation, or AoE management. Whatever you want to do. As a healer you can look at your overhealing and work at being more efficient. As a tank, you can look at the damage you took - could you be taking less damage with a different meta gem? By using your cooldowns at a different time? Recount is a great tool for self-improvement.
This is the minimap addon I use, but there are plenty competent ones out there. A minimap mod is useful to move your map in a more convenient location, as well as resize it. Some people prefer having no minimap at all. A minimap mod is not really necessary but it does contribute to making everything look clean.
FuBar ties in to the next section of this post. My FuBar is a simple black bar that appears when I hover my mouse at the top of my screen. Attached to it are plugins like GuildFu, FriendsFu, DurabilityFu, ExperienceFu, etc. They can allow me to see or access secondary utilities easily without getting in the way, that I might have eliminated in the original interface in exchange for more space on my screen.
Putting it all together
All right, so you’ve decided you were going to take your interface into your own hands and you’ve downloaded some addons. In fact, while you were browsing, you ended up getting way more addons than you had initially expected (and believe me, that will happen).
You’ve logged in and everything was a mess. You sorted some things out but your UI still looks cluttered by all of the new, nifty addons. Addons are great, but a clean UI is a whole other story. What do you need to see on your screen? Unit frames, action bars, minimap, chat. That’s it. While in combat, add a threat meter. That’s pretty simple - Omen hides automatically when out-of-combat. Then there’s cast bars, but obviously those don’t show unless you’re casting.
Put your action bars somewhere at the bottom of the screen. Unless you’re a clicker, their size doesn’t really matter, so you can make them small to leave room for other things. Move the chat down to their level, on whichever side you choose. Put Omen and the minimap in the remaining space. Make it all even, and there you go, now you have a nice, bottom panel of what’s essential. If you have a wide screen, you could even put Recount or Grid down there. By all means, do what works for you - but keep the screen as clean as possible.
Do some creative thinking. I have RecountFu, which hides or shows Recount whenever I click it on the FuBar. What I’ve done is place Recount exactly where Omen is, and hid it. I don’t look at Recount while I’m in combat because it’s distracting and useless, so during a fight, I will see Omen. When out of combat, Omen automatically hides, leaving a blank area on my interface, and if I choose to look at Recount I can simply click it on my FuBar, and it’ll appear.
The important rule of the UI is that it needs to be efficient. You need to be able to see everything you need to know in the blink of an eye, and be able to do whatever you need to do just as fast. Your interface should be clean. I can't tell you how many "clean" UIs I've seen that are full of clutter. Clean means you've got the least amount of stuff possible in the middle of your screen - you need to be able to see as much of the game world as possible. This is not clean. This is.
Also, have fun with it! Finding addons you like can be quite entertaining, and when you're done customizing your UI, it'll feels great. Suddenly you'll have, in your hands, an interface that no one else has, and that will help you become a better player.
If you'd like to see my UI in action, please check out my old OS10 video. There's some things I've changed since then as you can see if you compare it to the screenshot above, but it functions the same way.
Good luck and have fun customizing!