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Crappy UI Anecdotes

Posted by Bob Warfield on August 5, 2010

Sorry, but I have been extracting these stones from my user experience shoe for some time. I would grumble and finally move on, but as the same stones kept making their way back into my shoes, I finally decided to start keeping notes. This post is the result. It probably won’t be my last, but at least I’m getting a few off my chest and out of my shoes.

Google:

It only seems fitting to start with Google, as I read about the demise of Wave.  Are we surprised that Wave has passed, largely for UI reasons?  Google is just not a UX-focused organization, it’s an algorithms-focused culture.  Each takes its own peculiar brand of Alpha Geek, and the Armani T-Shirt Clad Jobs clones don’t get along so well with the pony-tail wielding unkempt Unix geeks.  I mean really, those UI guys are hardly even developers, they’re more artists or something, and the algorithms guys hate them because they get more girls.

So we suffer at the hands of these folks in many ways:

In Google Reader, I can Mark as Read all items older than a certain interval. Cool, that’s a great way to empty out my reader of posts that got too old before I could get to them. Unfortunately, it takes newer articles I had already seen and marks them Unread. Useless!

Gmail for the iPad has checkboxes like the other readers. When I start up mail, I make a quick scan based on sender and title. I check items to be deleted immediately, I star items I must definitely read, and the rest I leave alone. When done with the marking pass, I want to hit to get the checked items out of there. On the iPhone, a little palette drifts up and obscures the regular Delete button. On the browser version on my desktop, there is only one Delete and Archive, and they deal with anything checked, rather than the currently open mail. On the iPad, there is a floating palette, but it goes to the BOTTOM of the list of mails. The delete above the current mail item is the thing you see first and click on. That just deletes the current mail item, and I have spent a lot of time fishing them back out of the trash after inadvertently doing so. Google, why did we need 3 different ways for this UI to work? The desktop version would be fine on all platforms. Why did we need the crappy 3rd version in particular that comes up on the iPad? Useless!

Maybe the Android is different.  Perhaps the mobile devices are so pathetically weak in computational power that Google’s Uber Algorithm Geeks will have nothing to do with them.  I hope so, because if Apple keeps up with this Flash nonsense, I will likely switch to an Android.

Lastly, I offer final proof there is no UX sense at Google whatsoever.  I am writing this in Mexico, and it is augmented by an exchange I had with the Enterprise Irregulars about GMail.  I found I couldn’t even type “UX” into GMail as it felt “U” would be a better choice for me.  Meanwhile, the UI has switched to Espanol.  Never mind that I am logged in as me and told it 3 separate times so far to switch back to English.  No, somewhere, some Alpha Algorithm Geek just thinks its cooler if Google ignores all that and assumes it knows what is right not because a user told it so, but because IP packets are coming to the Google Mother Data Center from somewhere in Mexico.  Of course we must respond in Espanol.  That’s the algorithm, man.

Corporate Web Site Surveys

I just hit this on Salesforce.com. I looked at one page and made one click. Immediately up comes a box asking me if I’m willing to participate in a survey. WTF? I just got here, leave me the heck alone while I look at things. If you must interrupt me, at least do so for my benefit, not yours. I really do not want to pick on Salesforce specifically about this, because I see it constantly. My usual reaction is to close the survey and leave the site immediately. It’s just like hanging up on the Direct Marketers who call at dinner. I wonder if your web site analytics software tells you there are others doing the same thing? Seth Godin’s recent post, “Is Everything Perfect?” comes to mind. As he puts it:

Recently, though, our performance-obsessed, live-forever society has morphed the greeting into something like, “please list everything going on in your life that isn’t as perfect as it should be.” In a business setting, this causes bad prioritization decisions.

Amen, Seth. Bad prioritization like asking a visitor to rate their experience before they’ve really had one.  These are the kinds of people who think users are just click-throughs and not real people.  Useless!

Microsoft

Ah Microsoft. You’ve made an art of Stupid UI moves. How shall I count the ways? It’s everything from that idiotic banner UI you rolled out in Office (hey, did you guys miss the Successive Disclosure and 7 plus or minus 2 because of short-term memory lectures in UI School? Did you forget that modes are bad?), to just their standard practice started by their product management nazis that any new features have to go high up in the menu and UI structure so they look good in a demo regardless of whether anyone would ever actually use them very often. And what about those other expensive bits of UI malevolence, the Paper Clip and Bob (hey, I can hate software that shares my name if it is that lousy). Microsoft is not completely clueless. Vista was terrible, but I actually like a whole lot about Windows 7 and see it as (finally!) a genuine step forward from Windows XP. Rather than end on a high note (this isn’t a happy post), let’s end on the Microsoft thing that wastes more keystrokes than anything else I can think of: clearing the clipboard when you bring up an Office app. I’ve written about this before because it has caused me to have to reconstruct a considerable amount of content over the years.

Get ready for more Microsoft UI pain as Ballmer pushes for an iPad killer.  If you want to understand how truly bad this will be, download some popular desktop remote control app to your iPad and try to run your Windows stuff from it.  Uselessly Epic Fail!

Adobe

Oh man, don’t get me started on Adobe. I love Flex. I really do, and keep beating Apple and Steve Jobs about the head and shoulders over their capricious obstinacy towards all things Flash. Given how much Adobe has invested in making images, groupings of loosely related pixels, so perfect, first with Postscript then followed up with all sorts of other things, you would think they understand User Experience. Heck, it’s the sort of culture that attracts and pays for all sorts of great thinkers like Google to be able to wander around the campus and share their wisdom. These Thinkers are even Designers, who one would think (cough) could get User Experience. Alas, it seems not. I will confess, I do not have the latest Adobe software. I miss generations because it is so expensive. I also truly understand the need to differentiate Ease of Use from Ease of Learning. Adobe’s customers are Power Users, not Hobbyists, so they need Ease of Use much more than Ease of Learning. But damn, there is a lot here that isn’t easy to use. Forget the ridiculously complex conglomeration of random features with few organizing paradigms that is Photoshop. Okay, I just give up. It was created before peeps knew what all it might have to do. Someone needs to start from a clean sheet and simplify without reducing the power. It can be done, but it’s too late for Photoshop itself and it would piss off the intelligentsia if we mess with it too much.

No, I will focus on my pet annoying Adobe application, which is Dreamweaver. I am on CS4 FWIW. I give you one single (well maybe a couple single) issue: it is too darned hard to change a font or center a photo on a web page. This thing is so wrapped up in CSS Fascism that I have no choice but to comply. There used to be a nice little set of alignment icons on the Properties tool that could help me center my photos, but no more. I have to go through a multi-click right mouse button menu or the full menu system to git ‘er done. Thanks. Change a font? Well you had bloody well better have it baked into your page templates because otherwise we’re going to make you create a new CSS style to do it. Never mind that you just wanted to do it once, or that you don’t want to take time to do a tag at the moment. Fuggedaboutit. You are screwed.

And BTW, whoever wrote the code that helps the cursor dance around the embedded tags in Design View? That code is lousy. Try to mark something and run into the gutter accidentally and you cursor zooms off into the ether somewhere. The Mac trick of selecting from end to beginning (I like that trick) is a one way trip to frustration with Dreamweaver. Or, we forget which side of the tag we’re on and what to do and suddenly we are no longer in the font we thought we were because we strayed across a tag. Darn. That means we’ll have to go back into CSS style Hell again because of course it is too much to ask that we be allowed to change our font. Never mind that the template let us stray into a font that isn’t on any of the CSS styles through no fault of our own because the cursor handling code is crap. BTW, Adobe, this is actually something Microsoft knows how to do well and got right almost from the start with MS Word as a GUI product. HTML didn’t invent markup in the text. Lots of word processors made the mistakes you are making today back before we had GUI’s very commonly, and Microsoft showed how everyone should be doing it.  Useless!

Internet Explorer and Text Editing Boxes in Web Software

OMG, if I have to get onto another Social Forum written in PHP or some darned LAMP thing that starts jumping the cursor all over the place if I have more than an inch and a half high paragraph of text I am just going to scream. Or write a blog post like this one. Honestly, I am so tired of that. Every text box that runs in a browser has the exact same bug it seems like. BTW, the bug goes away if you switch from IE to Firefox. WTF? Why can’t either Microsoft or the stinking AJAX coders get this to work right? The answer is the best ones can (thank you WordPress where I am typing this in IE), but this is why I scream and yell when Apple won’t let Flash onto their platform. I never see this bug in Flash no matter which browser I am on. And BTW, when I’m in Firefox most web sites look friggin’ ugly compared to how they look in IE, so it ain’t the panacea either. BTW, please do not write me a comment suggesting I use your favorite new Wünder-Browser because I already don’t like having to use 2 browsers and 3 or 4 is out of the question.

Apple

Well of course the UX Gods at the top of the pantheon would never make any UI mistakes, right?  Not even close.  Their stuff is often insanely great, but it can also be quirky and just plain wrong.  I’m not sure what happens there.  Maybe Jobs loses interest and some minion gets too much control.

This post is already too long, and there are plenty more where this came from, so I’ll stick to one example.  The clipboard functions on the iPhone and iPad.  Now I ask you, dear users, what is the relative frequency you accidentally trigger the functions versus the times you really wanted them?  Is there maybe a 5:1 or 10:1 ratio of accidentals to on-purpose triggering?  Me too.  You Apple guys must have forgotten must have forgotten Alan Kay’s admonition that simple things be simple and complex things be possible.  That was a warning not to make rarely used features get in the way of frequently used features, which is exactly what’s happening here.  Useless!

Okay, I could go on like this for quite a while, but I feel better now. Thanks for letting me get this stuff off my chest!

But what about you, dear reader?  What are your UX beefs?  You know you want to vent, come on, let it out right here with a big fat hairy comment.  I dare you!

7 Responses to “Crappy UI Anecdotes”

  1. adamsalesforce said

    Adam here from Salesforce.com. I noticed your comment about our website pop-up survey and I wanted to take a moment to respond. Normally our survey should only appear after three or more pages on the site so we will be looking into why you received it prematurely and apologize for the inconvenience. These surveys are only shown to a small percent of our website visitors and our sole reason for having them is to help us create a better experience for our visitors. Thanks!

  2. schlafly said

    Google does not believe in ever deleting anything. If it can trick you into saving that email, then there is an opportunity to sell an ad based on searching for it later.

  3. chrism100 said

    Bob,

    I appreciate your rant. I would not call them “Crappy UI’s.” Things are not crappy if they are designed intentionally to perform that way. Yes, I am saying that Microsoft, Adobe, Apple intentionally design horrific interfaces to block competition.

    I think the focus is not UI but more importantly is ‘platform adoption.’ If you can get an entire population to put up with and learn an arduous backwards way of doing something then people would be less likely to learn anything else even if it is easier.

    I am sure you are (at least loosely) familiar with the alternative to the Qwertyuiop keyboard but who in the heck uses it? The Qwertyuiop is probably our first real example of an intentionally designed crappy interface. Yes, you can reprogram your keyboard to use the extremely more efficient keyboard setup but when you move to a new computer or use someone else’s then you knowing the more efficient way is useless.

    So, if it takes 6 clicks to change a font or center a picture in Dreamweaver who would ever want to learn some other difficult program? What is the value in going from 6 clicks to 5 clicks to get something done? Why would I switch from one crappy platform to go to another crappy platform?

    Once you get used to all the buttons being in the wrong places then you won’t want to learn anything else. Adobe, Microsoft, Apple are counting on it.

    Thanks Bob,
    Chris

  4. smoothspan said

    Crappy intent does still crappy UI make.

    Chris, you have a bright future designing UI for Apple, Adobe, or Google. As for me, I will steer clear of your products.

    Consider your own question, “Why would I switch from one crappy platform to go to another crappy platform?”

    Given that choice, you’re quite correct. But that isn’t necessarily the choice, though people in the companies we’re talking about seem to think so.

    We used to argue UI constantly at my last gig, and there were certain arguments that wound up ending with, “Well our UI doesn’t suck as much.” We concluded pretty quickly that when the argument reached that point, that was a net loss for the arguer and we needed to do something different.

    Aiming to suck less is a great Big Company strategy. It’s why startups have such great opportunity to move forward. It’s also not how great products are created or progress moves forward.

    Cheers,

    BW

    PS The problem with the Dvorak analogy is it isn’t obvious to most QWERTY typists what they’re missing. With the examples I gave it is.

  5. schlafly said

    It is not true that the Qwerty keyboard was designed to be difficult. It was designed to spread out consecutively-used letters. That feature actually makes for faster typing, because you are less likely to have to use the same finger for consecutive letters.

    It is also not true that other keyboard designs are “extremely more efficient”. This myth is often used to try to show that bad designs can win big in the marketplace, but the Qwerty example does not prove it at all.

  6. […] I’ve talked in the past about Google UI.  Okay, I ranted, and in fairness I ranted a bit at Adobe as well.  But GOOG are the masters of min-UI.  I […]

  7. […] I’ve talked in the past about Google UI.  Okay, I ranted, and in fairness I ranted a bit at Adobe as well.  But GOOG are the masters of min-UI.  I won’t […]

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