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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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