Archive for the ‘Usability’ Category

Google and the end of SMS: by design flaw or design strategy?

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

I’ve been using Android 4.4 KitKat for a few weeks now and the only part of it I don’t particularly like is how Hangouts tries to combine SMS with what was previously Google Talk. There’s also several functional parts of the UI that really frustrate me.

The “swipe” gesture to archive a Hangout is fine… but more than once I’ve accidentally archived Hangouts trying to swipe to the list of recent hangouts. This is a hit area problem: if you don’t swipe accurately enough, you start deleting, er, “archiving” Hangouts. And if you don’t hit undo immediately, they then seem gone forever.

Hangouts on Android

But the real problem with Hangouts is the seemingly inconsistent searching of contacts between the phone app and Hangouts. Yesterday I watched my wife almost go crazy trying to send an SMS to her sister in law. When she searched for her name in the phone app, it was there no problem: but nothing came up when she searched in Hangout except for Google+ people. And tapping on any contact in the phone app simply calls them. There is no long hold interaction which seems very strange. After both of us fiddling around with the Nexus 5 we finally worked out if you tap on the contact photo and NOT the contact name, you then get more detail and the option of sending an SMS to that number.

Again, why there isn’t a long hold here really baffles me: surely that’s a very natural interaction for getting more details within an contact context?

Of course when I tried to replicate this contact issue with the same person on my Nexus, our sister in law came up no problem on my Hangouts (with phone number). But I found the identical problem with another contact:

Hangouts in Android 4.4

The same contact appears in both the phone and Hangouts app, but Hangouts doesn’t give me an option to send an SMS — only a Hangout chat.

The inconsistency here really interests me. Is this genuinely a design flaw, or are Google doing their utmost to try and push Hangout chats over traditional SMS? It would make sense for Google to be pushing Hangouts over SMS, and as an end user with a data plan I then wouldn’t have to worry about SMS costs (especially when it comes to messaging people abroad). And with the news today of Facebook buying WhatsApp, Google trying to catch up with Hangouts would obviously be strategic.

So the question still remains: is this confusing and inconsistent contact searching on Android 4.4 on purpose or is it just bad UI design? Knowing Google, I suspect it’s probably the latter.

Desire paths and how old habits die hard

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

I find the concept of desire paths really fascinating. Over the winter in Gordon Square in London half the park was covered in hazard tape to allow the grass trodden to death by walkers over a desire path to heal. The tape is gone now, the path healed — but no doubt the path will re-emerge soon enough. (In fact I only realised it had healed as I was walking over the path itself — cutting across the grass).

While desire paths are essentially short cuts made by users within a system, I noticed something the other day: when the system goes out of its way to create a new short cut specifically for users, often it’s hard to get users to adopt this easier option.

For me I realised this at Euston Underground station last week. From the Tube station ticket hall, there had been two escalators (one up, one down) and a stair case in the middle. The stairs were rarely used and for the past several months they had been blocked off while an escalator was put installed to replace them.

Heading out of the ticketing platform, the escalators are on a sharp right angle off a straight walk. Without realising I went for the first up escalator, which already had a queue forming. But then I realised the new escalator was now running right next to the original one, but with no one using it.

Commuters had become so used to the walk straight/turn right/queue for first escalator routine virtually no one had noticed the new one.

Over time Euston commuters will obviously notice the new escalator. But for me the most interesting aspect of this was how they had become so preconditioned to the system they failed to see a new and better way to navigate the system.

Perhaps a sign pointing to the new escalator might’ve helped? There are two solutions for new features such as this: either promote it or just wait (and hope) users find it.

Unfortunately, you can never guarantee users to find such things — so perhaps promotion of new features is always the best route.

Dinosaurs, latin and iconography

Monday, February 27th, 2012

Earlier this year I went to the Design of Understanding conference at the St Bride library in London. Organiser Max Gadney compiled an fascinating and eclectic list of speakers for the day; and while all the talks were great, for me paleoartist Luis Rey was the real highlight. Not only because of his amazing art and sense of humour, but also the way he described how for a long time his vibrant artwork was shunned by the scientific community. His philosophy to recreating dinosaurs in art is that with only bones, how could anyone really have any idea what colours or textures made up dinosaurs in real life?

Chirostenotes (Copyright Luis Rey)

However, with the discovery of feathers on a dinosaur in China in the 1990s, suddenly Luis Rey’s artwork seemed perhaps not as fantastic as originally thought. He is now one of the foremost and well-respected paleoartists — working with many leading palaeontologists on the amazing Dinosaurs: The Most Complete, Up-to-Date Encyclopedia for Dinosaur Lovers of All Ages.

During the talk Luis spoke of how the Tyrannosaurus rex has — and still is — often very inaccurately potrayed.

First ever published reconstruction of a Tyrannosaurus rex

The classic image of a Tyrannosaurus rex is that of a lumbering predator with a bipedal posture. But how could the Tyrannosaurus rex possibly catch anything with a stance like this? Scientific theory has changed its view of the Tyrannosaurus rex dramatically over the years — and now sees the infamous dinosaur as standing parallel to the ground with its tail extending behind.

How the Tyrannosaurus rex’s posture is now seen by science

While science’s understanding of the Tyrannosaurus rex has changed, that classic image of Tyrannosaurus rex walking on two feet is still very strong in everyone’s minds. If we were playing a game such as Pictionary and you had to draw a Tyrannosaurus rex, would you not at least consider drawing the ‘traditional’ view of the Tyrannosaurus rex in the hope that your partner may guess it faster — spurning science for the sake of victory?

I definitely would — even though I’d feel like I’d betrayed science just a little bit.

During Rey’s talk I realised that no matter how inaccurate a perception of something is, the most common perception is still the most powerful.

Looking at icon design, it’s this very fact that explains why in this world of rapidly emerging technology we still live with some incredibly out-dated yet universally understood icons.

My favourite day-to-day icon — mostly a British thing I suspect — is the symbol for speed camera:

When was the last time anyone saw a daguerreotype-style camera like this? Or the last time your parents or even grandparents saw a camera like this?

Yet the old-style camera icon still remains strong — through the ubiquity of appearing on every major roadway in the UK. Shown in isolation and it would probably confuse people at first. But amongst red, amber and green lights and other traffic-related furniture it is immediately recognisable.

The BBC Global Experience Language was only launched a few years ago but it also contains many strong images of old and almost extinct technology. Old wind-up clocks for alarms, cogs for settings in devices that are wholly electronic — and of course let’s not forget another classic time traveller in the icon world: the floppy disk for save.

The old faithful ‘save’ icon: the 1.44mb floppy disk

The wonderful video below shows some French children being shown an array of old technology. Their reactions are fascinating — especially around 44 seconds in when they are presented with floppy disks.

Yet children learn so quickly I’m sure in the context of a computer desktop they would be able to ‘save’ something by using the save icon with a floppy disk. They know it in the context of a computer desktop, just not in a real world manifestation.

Just like Latin is used in scientific circles as a ‘dead language’ that won’t change, I wonder if one reason these anachronistic icons survive is not dissimilar.

The floppy disk is not going to change any time soon because it’s dead. However, think about the storage devices that have preceded it. Zip drives (100mb — wow those were the days), CD-Rs, portable hard drives, USB thumb drives… and now we head into the world of cloud storage. Updating a save icon to reflect current technology would not only require constant iteration but it would also dilute the power of the iconography and convention that has already been established with the old floppy disk.

Whether it’s dinosaurs, speed cameras or floppy disks there’s no doubt that there are far more appropriate ways to symbolise these as icons. But for better or worse, the most powerful icon is the one that resonates most widely: whether it’s the terribly inaccurate Victorian view of how a Tyrannosaurus rex looked and stood or the use of an obsolete form of storage that most kids today have never seen — and probably will never see.

Eurostar: a bit of irony and some great customer service

Saturday, November 26th, 2011

Looking into booking Eurostar tickets for next year and I encountered this:

The old chestnut of Flash banners overlaying any object on the page. But the irony here is that the Flash banner is advertising Eurostar’s flash sale. Oops.

Actually, I choose to blame UKBA — if it wasn’t for the strike next week, the info box here wouldn’t be pushing the banner down.

But kudos to Eurostar…

Stellar social media service!

Gmail Zombie Feedback pop up: personal annoyance or nagware?

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

Gmail launched a new look a few weeks ago. In my mind it was nothing particuarly revolutionary, just a general tightening of the design. Still, in essence, the same old Gmail.

Since this launch, I’ve noticed that Google is keen to hear my feedback on the new design.

Really keen.

At first I just hit the close button. The second, third and possibly fourth time I did the same. Possibly the fifth time it appeared, I actually gave them feedback, telling them not to worry — the new design was fine, but please stop pestering me with the pop up.

Gmail feedback

Yet it kept coming back. It’s like a zombie: it won’t die unless you shoot it in the head. But the problem is, I don’t know where the head is.

Resident Gmail

Flags and languages: Redux (Part II)

Sunday, November 6th, 2011

Back in June I wrote about the eternal issue of using flags to represent languages and why this is a fundamentally flawed idea.

Entitled ‘Flags and languages: Redux (Part I)’, I’d obviously planned writing a Part II that would deal with the entire issue in some detail.

Well, I tried, and it’s quite amazing how complex the issues involved are — which for me is just more proof as to why using flags as languages is a really bad idea.

I quickly realised there was far more than a simple blog post involved. So Part II is actually a whole new blog: Flags are not languages.

Flags are not languages

Hopefully this blog will help in someway to curtail these bad design practices, as well as exploring and promoting best practice for displaying and presenting different language content.

So next time someone suggests plonking a Spanish flag on the link for Spanish (or German, French, Arabic etc.) — hopefully you can just send them this link and they can understand why using flags for languages is wrong.

Facebook design changes: user experience and the user environment

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

So, Facebook rolled out some new design changes today. From the moment I heard about it, I think everyone knew that it’d be big yet ultimately dull news.

As one friend put in a succinct Facebook update:

That time of the year has come again – Facebook layout changes

Side effects will include a barrage of posts from people who claim it has caused them distress, anxiety, agitation, blurred vision, hair loss, insomnia, diarrhoea and erectile dysfunction.

Users hate change. Redesigns at best are met with softly spoken praise; at worst with fury and backlash.

As a designer I always try to stifle my inner-user when dealing with a new design. I try to understand and appreciate the thought behind it, knowing only too well how much time, thought and discussion has been put into every minute detail.

But what also really fascinates me is after using a new design of a site, seeing what others think of it, and trying to reconcile their thoughts with not only my own opinion of the design, but what I think was the strategy behind the design itself.

SXSW 2012: The submission is in

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

I enjoyed my first SXSW so much this year that I decided to take the plunge and submit a panel idea.


I’ve entitled the proposal ‘Global UX: beyond language, location and culture‘. I’m hoping to impart some of the UX and design knowledge I’ve learnt over the years from working at a multi-language media outlet (BBC World Service) along with a few of my other design passions: from general usability through to my obsession with seeing the end of flags being used to represent languages.

So, check it out, and if you like the sound of it, give it a vote!

Dragon’s Den: Deborah Meaden and User Experience

Friday, August 12th, 2011

Watching the first episode of series nine of The Dragon’s Den, it was fantastic to see how up-to-date some of the Dragon’s are with web technology.

Deborah Meaden

Pitching The Present Club gift website, Georgette Hewitt ran into some tough questions from the Dragons about the technical side of her business. First Hilary Devey:

… so you actually own the source code? [...] what language is it written in?

Georgette ensured Hilary she owned the code, although it sounded like it was based on a proprietary system, which could be a problem for the enterprise going forward. Georgette also didn’t know what language the site was written in: an interesting question from Hilary (and one that really shows her own knowledge of the industry), but not one I think Georgette should really be expected to know. She’s not a technical person, and whether it’s PHP, Ruby or Java is really irrelevant — this is about the business model.

However, Deborah Meaden had some questions that Georgette really should have known more about:

…without exception, the big issue that we’ve had is not about driving customers [...] it’s the site handling those customers. There’s a lot to website structure that’ll make it work or not work’.

I assume Deborah was not so concerned with server load but more how the site handled the customer experience. It was really exciting to hear someone like her so aware and embracing of the user experience ethos. Sadly for Georgette, she couldn’t give Deborah any answer on how the site handled: very likely it had no user testing or much thought at all applied to the general user experience of the site.

But the idea for the site wasn’t bad. Peter Jones commented on Deborah’s concerns:

I think that the business and concept and concerns about the web are easily dealt with. How many people have you got coming to the site?

Easily dealt with? Well, you can definitely fix the user experience: it’s a shame the site wasn’t built with this in mind from the beginning, but Peter is right, with some investment it could definitely be fixed. But even with a great user experience, if the business model is rubbish, the site won’t survive. Peter saw this and along with Theo Paphitis they opted to invest with Georgina — and hopefully they’ll be as mindful about the user experience aspect of the site as Deborah was.

User experience as courtesy: sometimes it’s just the little things

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

The New Yorker

While reading The New Yorker’s account of the raid that killed Bin Laden, I decided to share the link in particular because of this quote, which I found really interesting:

“I’m glad no one was hurt in the crash, but, on the other hand, I’m sort of glad we left the helicopter there,” the special-operations officer said. “It quiets the conspiracy mongers out there and instantly lends credibility. You believe everything else instantly, because there’s a helicopter sitting there.”

I copy and pasted it into Facebook, and instead got this:

“I’m glad no one was hurt in the crash, but, on the other hand, I’m sort of glad we left the helicopter there,” the special-operations officer said. “It quiets the conspiracy mongers out there and instantly lends credibility. You believe everything else instantly, because there’s a helicopter sitting there.”

Read more

The New Yorker site had added in a link to the original story after I’d copied it to the clipboard. This is really great: it’s such a small thing but a really smart idea. User experience as courtesy.