Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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There are blatantly bad user interfaces such as the MacOS X Finder or MS Office. If things are really bad, that's quite obvious and you'll curse them. But then there are what I like to call 'subtly bad user interfaces', those won't break you but they'll make you hesitate for a second and be irritated. I guess they mostly exist due to negligence and the people building things not actually using them. These little quirks can be found everywhere and I'll offer three examples here.

Push button
In real life push buttons are there to be pushed. Unlike in the computer world you expect things to happen as soon as you press them not only when you release them. Light switches mostly fulfill our expectations for buttons and tend to work well. As the sophistication and – I guess – computerisation of machines increases those basics seem to be harder to get right. One example are our house's tumble dryers.

The old tumble dryer had a quirk. You had to keep the button pressed for a moment in order to start its cycle. If you failed to do that within a minute the Euro you inserted would be lost. Thus there was a little sign telling you to keep it pressed for a few seconds. This was irritating but once you got into the habit, it worked.

Then, one of the dryers broke and was replaced by a current model. It's a nice dryer with a fancy light on the inside. But its buttons work differently. The dryer will start immediately after you release the button. In particular that means keeping the button pressed as you're used to won't do anything. Then you decide to try again and before you can do so the machine will start. This doesn't give you the satisfaction of actually having started the machine.

I think two rules were broken here: 'Don't have buttons or other elements of your user interface that don't work as expected'. And 'Don't change the way things work'.

ICE Display
When boarding a south-bound high-speed 'ICE' train in Hannover, it will invariably pass Göttingen. That could be neat if it weren't for the fact that not every train actually stops in Göttingen. So you have to do the timetable trick. That's not a big deal and will give you the time and platform you need.

But what if the display on the platform won't list Göttingen as a stop because it doesn't have space for all of them? And what if even the display inside the train won't list Göttingen, although 80% of the screen are empty. Wouldn't you at least question your memory regarding the timetable information? I know that I do. I find this confusing. If you display information you should ensure that the display is accurate and complete. If you can't do that you should make sure the deficiencies of the displayed information are clear.

mouse pointer for copying mouse pointer for making aliases In Mac OS X.3 Apple have included guidelines for a comprehensive list of mouse pointers in their human interface guidelines. Those include the 'copy' and 'alias' pointers that are known from the Finder. Having them around should be a good idea.

Counting hand from iPod commercial Unfortunately their usage isn't consistent. In facts it is inconsistent even in Apple's own applications. Drag something to the Finder's sidebar and you won't get a special pointer at all. Drag it to the toolbar and you'll get a 'copy' cursor as you will when adding songs to a playlists in iTunes. You'll probably be able to find more of these examples on your own. How are people going to understand the meaning of those different cursors if they aren't used consistently? The meaning of things is given by seeing them in use (... or so if you've read too much Wittgenstein).

Counting down hand pointer Apple's documentation also has pictures of the lovely old 'counting down hand' cursor that was found in classic Mac installers. Being able to watch it made the wait much more pleasant. While abandoning that cursor seems to be a sound design decision for a change – progress indicators should be asynchronous – I still miss the pretty animation. – And it's so iPod-esque these days.

November 12, 2003, 0:39


Comment by eli: User icon

The relatively minor inconsistancies you speak of are typical on a new rollout of an operating system. They will go away just in time for the next system to be unvailed with its new set of inconsistancies. Get used to it. In general, OS X v. 10.3 is fast, functional and intuitive. Comparing it to MS Office is hardly valid.

November 12, 2003, 16:08

Comment by Math: User icon

I think you miss the point for buttons. In real life, once you press a button, that’s it you’re screwed, the only thing you can do is release it. With a computer, once you press a button, you can always move your mouse away to cancel the button press. That is why the computer requires a confirmation in the form of a button release. That model wouldn’t work in real life because moving you hand away from the button won’t do you no good.

Try an application called KDX. It has a completely custom interface that does exactly what you suggest, button actions on press and not release. I guarantee you’ll be confused and you’ll like the current model better.

November 13, 2003, 0:20

Comment by pecosbill: User icon

Push buttons: There’s a reason they work the way they do. Apple could have done it like real world buttons. Instead, they give the user the opportunity to change their mind. If you click a button and realize mid-click you don’t want to, you can drag off the mouse and release. This will not activate the button. I used that feature in the past when computers were slow, but these days it’s not an issue (and I seem to know more what I want to do).

Your points about the Finder are quite good, however. It seems like they treat a folder on the disk as somthing that merits a pointer but ones that are stored elsewhere (sidebar), don’t. As for iTunes, it would seem that since everything not in the Library is an alias, that would clutter the interface to point it out.

With asynchronus progress indicators….. I hate them. Windoze is full of them. What’s the point? To prove you can animate? I want to see the application is not stalled but actually doing something. The wonderful old watch hand used to do that. If an app stopped updating it (which uses CPU), then it stopped moving. These days, it’s just a guess. (Well…. give it a few minutes then kill it)

I’m quite surprised you didn’t hit on the other issues with the Finder. No time myself to do so but check out arstechnica.com

November 13, 2003, 0:43

Comment by ssp: User icon

Math: I think we completely agree on push buttons. The tumble dryer I was writing about is a real world tumble dryer with real push buttons – no touch screen or anything. But that push buttons has adopted the behaviour of a computer push button, which is - as you pointed out - inappropriate as in the real world you have no option of taking your finger off the button without releasing it. Another instance of advances from the computer world coming back to the ‘real’ world and going wrong on the way.

I must be writing too much about computers to make people think everything appearing here is about them.

pecosbill, iTunes: If everything in iTunes playlists is an alias (which I agree with), why does iTunes display the ‘copy’ cursor when adding one to a playlist. I can see how the ‘plus’ icon will imply that you ‘add’ something but it does blur the meaning of that cursor.

pecosbill, progress indicators: Good point. Perhaps the language of asynchronous progress indicators is bad (I took it from Apple’s web page). A better way to put it may be that the mouse pointer shouldn’t be the way a computer tells you about its progress. It’s a pointer. The problem with current progess indicators seems to be that they may not give you correct information about the progress (or non-progress) happening – which may have to do with them being asynchronous.

pecosbill, Finder: I had a go at the Finder here and here (or most hits you get here for that matter. For more detailed things I am too frustrated with its current state to consider it worthwhile spending more time on detailing them. I could dump a folder’s worth of absurd screenshots, though, and leave it as an exercise to the reader to see the problems.

November 13, 2003, 1:07

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