Friday, February 17, 2006

Tech: Life is too short to suffer unfriendly design

When I logged on today, some software asked if I wanted to continue installation. Yesterday, I'd knocked back its request to reboot-and-finish-installation. Time was, you wouldn't have a choice, and you'd be told you were rebooting no matter what you did. One point here for design improvement.

The score is tied though, because that software had been bugging me for ages to upgrade. I refused, because it intended to install an extraneous third-party product I didn't want. Down the track, it was pleading the subsequent upgrade - without the third party. Oh, all right.
But it’s like someone phoning me every day: do you want to upgrade? No. I'll call you.

Further examples of bad design:
  • your mobile phone
  • web sites lacking any of: site map, phone number, email address, physical address
  • manuals: second-language English; unclear prose; poor indexing; incompleteness
  • software that requires startup manuals (software needs to be as intuitive as possible, needs to piggyback on familiar paradigms)
  • software installs (too many steps and the user misses crucial actions: "do you want me to take over all these file types? Heh heh heh!")

All these reek of shoddy (or non-existent) user testing.

Software is just an easy target. The buffer between English-dropout computer geek and end-user is simply too thin. Sometimes the geeks even write the manuals and online help. Eek!

And I'm speaking as an I.T. professional. For the non-professional, computer life is surely pain from beginning to end. Online help that doesn't tell you anything you need to know. Gibberish, disorganised manuals (manuals should be relegated to reference material: quick start diagrams at the front; comprehensive detail at the back. Some do.)

An example of the converse: I have a panasonic dvd player. It has an on button and an eject button. I can press the eject button when it’s off: it turns on and ejects. I can press the off button when the tray’s out: it quietly shuts shop and goes to sleep. Now that’s good design: task-oriented rather than process-oriented.
(Remember to praise good design.)

Don’t blame the software per se. It’s just a blind for the people who wrote it. But it's not just the geeks who are culpable. They should have a whole company structure wrapped around them to protect the real world from them.
Hold accountable the manufacturers/publishers for the poor design, the poor documentation, for inadequate user testing.

It can be much better.

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