Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sned the Email!

A number of years ago, I scoured the Internet looking for a good, free replacement to Outlook Express. I tried a few programs until I hit on one that took my fancy. I think it was an early version of Foxmail. The layout was Outlook Express-ish, but in a more cartoony sort of way, which, for some reason, was appealing.

Written by a Chinese developer, the email client's Help was in Cantonese. Thankfully, the UI was in English and the program was quite straightforward so I could figure out most things on my own. I used this email client on my family computer for a number of months and grew to love its quirks and foibles. The UI was decent enough, but the programmer had made a glaring typo and it became customary in our house to SNED an email, instead of SEND it. Although we have moved on to a different email client, from time-to-time we still say SNED, just because.

As amusing as it may be, I think that the world has enough experience with software to no longer have to tolerate SNEDing emails. A good article on this topic, Top-10 Application Design Mistakes by Jakob Nielsen, lists the following as major GUI design offenses:
  1. Non-standard GUI controls, including text/graphics that look like controls, but aren't
  2. Inconsistency
  3. No perceived affordance (i.e. the user doesn't know what to do with the control just by looking at it), including tiny click targets
  4. No feedback (did the action I just took work or not?), including lengthy processing times without a progress indicator
  5. Bad error messages
  6. Asking for the same information twice
  7. No default values
  8. Dumping the user into the app (i.e. the user has no context, guide, or indication of what is expected of them and what they can expect from the app)
  9. Not indicating how information will be used
  10. System-centric features (i.e. features that are viewed from the programmer's point of view and not from the user's point of view)
  11. (Bonus mistake): Reset button on web forms (i.e. enable users to destroy their entire work in one click)
One of my pet-peeves is point 1: Text/graphics that look like controls, but aren't. The most annoying is underlined text on websites that are not links. Come to think of it, users probably expect underlined text in software apps to take them to a website or Help topic. I can't state this enough: Do not use underlined text unless it is for a link. That's why G-d invented bold.

When designing apps or websites, it is important to take into account all the rules of design, usability and user experience. Be careful. Some of the rules you think are set in stone may only be misconceptions. As of writing this article, lists 32 UX design myths, among them:
According to, the first rule of user experience is:
Everything a designer does affects the user experience. From the purposeful addition of a design element to the negligent omission of crucial messaging, every decision is molding the future of the people we design for.
In other words, the main aim is to communicate and the way you do that is by what you put in to the GUI, how it is represented in the GUI and what you leave out of the GUI.

For Office 2007, Microsoft decided that the traditional method of  presenting functions and options was no longer optimal. That is, the multi-layered menus became too complex. So they changed it. Many of you would have already experienced the MS Office ribbons. I know a number of people who hate them with a vengeance. Jukka-Pekka Kaisala articulates the main objection to ribbons quite eloquently:
" gives me [a] beautifully crafted interface where I cannot find stuff I want."
Let's agree to disagree on this one. Like many people, I had become accustomed to the traditional menus. I knew where to find things. Menus were comfortable. But as the number of options increased, the menus became more and more complicated. Sometimes it was necessary to dig down to three or four menu layers to get to the desired option. Although it was familiar, it became time-consuming and frustrating.

I think that Microsoft did a really good job with the ribbon, presenting all the options horizontally instead of vertically. I agree that it isn't always easy to find everything, but MS put most functions and options in logical places. There is a learning curve, but so what? Also, the Quick Launch toolbar is extremely useful for accessing commonly used functions, and it is easy to hide the ribbon when you don't want to see it.

True, it takes getting used to, but once you do, the ribbon is easy to work with. I think Microsoft got the user experience right. Other software that uses traditional menus now look out of date to me.

In my blog post entitled Eat Your Own Dog Food I contend that it is important for designers and developers to use the products they design so that they can get a good feel for how a user actually uses it. I still think that is true, which is one reason why the design of fictitious UIs seen in movies are often abysmal - they don't exist (yet). For example, the control panel to pilot one of the Star Trek vessels looks something like this:

Note the large number of small touch-sensitive buttons in close proximity to each other. Imagine piloting this spaceship during a fierce battle and accidentally hitting forward thrusters when you really meant to whip the ship into reverse.

If we do end up with Star Trek-like GUIs, let's hope we don't engage the transporter by pressing SNED.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Act Your Age, Not Your Shoe Size

The other day I was traveling to work and the conversation on the bus was more animated than usual, which means that there was conversation on the bus. One of my colleagues joked that although he is 40, he has a mental age of 17. In other words, he still thinks he's Superboy when he's actually more like the father from the Wonder Years.

This got me thinking about what my mental age is. I also sometimes feel like I'm still a teenager. In fact, I cracked a joke the other day and my daughter's friend remarked that my jokes are just as good as Eitan's. Who'se Eitan? Her nearly-thirteen-year-old brother. The phrase "act your age, not your shoe size" would not really apply in this situation because using the Australian shoe size chart, my joke was almost spot on, give or take 2.5 years.

There are a number of ways I can measure my mental age:
  1. Self assessment
  2. Friend
  3. Psychologist
I decided that none of these options would be accurate enough. For starters, nobody can assess themselves because they are too biased to come up with an accurate result. Friends tell you what you want to hear, especially if its your turn to buy the next round. Psychologists will spend hours asking a bunch pointless questions until they finally ask you what you think, mumble something that sounds like agreement (but not necessarily) and then hand you the invoice.

I decided to take a far more scientific approach.

The second-top result for my Google search for "mental age" was an online mental age test. I normally don't hold much faith in these types of websites, but is FREE, enables me to DISCOVER MORE ABOUT MYSELF and DOESN'T REQUIRE REGISTRATION. Also, 475,190 people took the test before me, so I figured it must be good.

The instructions were to be honest because nobody will see my answers. That assurance was comforting, so I clicked Start.

The test comprised 20 questions, ranging from my thoughts about the President (it didn't specify which one), to questions about what I would do if I found an old shirt in my closet, to how I would rate McDonald's food on a scale ranging from "disgusting" to "gourmet".

Then came the twentieth question: Do baseball caps look better backwards or forwards? I knew that this final click will reveal my true mental age. With just the slightest amount of nervousness, a little trepidation, and a brief pause for dramatic effect, I clicked the fateful button.

I kid you not, this is hard, cold scientific proof: My mental age is exactly my chronological age. Beat that.

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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

I Know What You're Thinking

I once referred to the Internet as a "fountain of wisdom". I was immediately corrected - the Internet is a "fountain of information, with some wisdom in it". The good thing about the Internet is that all opinions are out there for everyone to see - some you agree with, and some make you quite uncomfortable, to say the least. However, it's all there - a digital representation of what the world thinks.

On 1 January 2012 at 12.01AM I was returning home from a family get-together, thinking about why the powers-that-be decided not to install street lights on a particularly dark and dangerous road.

What were you thinking about on 1/1/2012? Don't worry if you don't remember, Google knows.

The thing about Google is that their core business is collecting data, organizing it into meaningful bits, and using it to generate income. In an act of generosity, benevolence and magnanimity, Google has given us a nice little tool called "Google Trends", which anyone can use to track what the most popular searches are at any given time - in other words, Google knows what the global collective is thinking about at any moment.

The following table contains a list of the most searched terms in the first few hours of 2012. The data was recorded on the website and is originally sourced from Google Trends.
To enlarge, click the table.
Data compiled from
As you can see, the top search term on 1 Jan 2012 at 01:02AM was Brock Lesnar, a pro-wrestler (also see number 12). The next most popular search term at the beginning of 2012 is a chicken dip recipe, followed by searches for Dick Clark, ABC's New Year's presenter for the last 40 years.

A quick study of the list shows that 1, 12, and 14 are all searches for wrestling terms, with number 9 a search term based on a medical condition that Brock Lesnar suffers from, so I suppose it counts. There are also a couple of searches for alcohol-related terms (6 and 19).

At 02:18AM, priorities seem to have changed. Dick Clark moved up two places to the top of the list, the buffalo chicken dip recipe became a more popular search term than Brock Lesnar, jello shots moved down three places, but finding a liquor store was obviously a more pressing need, moving up to 16th place.

At 04:13AM Brock Lesnar made a comeback, the buffalo chicken dip recipe sliding down to 11th place. Although jello shots slipped to number 19, desperation for alcohol seemed to pick up with liquor store bumping up one place to 15 and the addition of moonshine at number 20. It also seems that a bunch of people forgot how to tie a bow-tie and sing auld lang syne.

The list at 05:14AM changed somewhat. Dick Clark retained the title as the top search term, Brock Lesnar slipped to third. Fewer people needed to know how to tie a bow tie and there was less demand for alcohol-related information, with jello shots falling off the list completely.

At 06:08AM, as people were either going home or waking up, a curious thing started to happen. Dick Clarke's unbreakable lead remained, but suddenly Brock Lesnar became a lot less important. All hope for finding a liquor store at 6AM was lost, but it suddenly dawned on the groggy, hungover masses that the world might end in 2012 (number 20 on the list).

By 07:49AM, when more people were coming-to, Dick Clark, obviously the most important, held position at the top, but the realization that last night's party could have been the last was sinking in with searches for Mayan calendar edging up a notch and the introduction of a new term "December 21 2012" coming in at 18th place.

So, in the first few hours of the new year, the important things to know were that:
  • For the 40th time, Dick Clark would rather work than go to a New Year's party
  • Actress Jenny McCarthy kissed an unidentified policeman at midnight
  • Michael Dyer was suspended for undisclosed reasons (I assume it had nothing to do with kissing a policeman)
Evidently, Dick, Jenny and Michael are far more important than the fact that the world is about to end.

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