I have read… ‘The Inmates Are Running the Asylum’2010-03-19
I have recently finished reading The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity, by Alan Cooper. It is a book about user experience and interaction design. About why it is so important, why most people in the industry of software development don’t pay attention to it, and the consequences of that. It is a superb reading I totally recommend.
In my opinion, its current scoring in Amazon (4 stars) is difficult to understand. I would give it a 6 if I could. I think it is better than About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design, also by Cooper. With this last one my expectations were very high but weren’t completely fulfilled (I think a 40% percent of the book was avoidable). But each page of The inmates… contains a lot of thoughts you can learn from. With many sentences I found myself thinking: ‘that’s totally obvious… but I hadn’t stopped to think about it until I read this’. And that’s exactly my favorite reaction when I am reading a technical book.
I would like to talk about the role of interaction design in two applications I use daily.
Lotus Notes: how not to design user interfaces
Lotus Notes is the mail client I have to use at work. There are so many wrong things about it that you can easily find web pages like Is Lotus Notes the worst business application ever?, Lotus Notes Sucks or Is Lotus Notes the world’s worst application?.
Why does this application provoke these kind of reactions?. I think the key is its user interface and the experience it produces in the poor user. Let me show you an example:
The screenshot shows how Lotus Notes let you manage your mail. It offers you 48 buttons with their 48 icons to do that (and the real scary part comes when you try to search for some functionality using the chaotic and non-standard menus). Managing your mail is about reading, writing, searching and organizing. None of these very fundamental goals is properly covered by Notes.
Reading. Notes let you activate a “Preview Panel” that split the window in two parts, so you can read the contents of mails without opening them in new windows. It also draws in red color the mails you haven’t read yet. If you have your inbox empty (and I always keep it empty), when a new mail arrives, and you have the preview panel open, the mail is automatically marked as ‘read’. This behavior has made me miss several mails.
Another good feature is that there is no obvious mechanism to force the checking of new mail. When some colleague has just send me an email I want to check, I close my inbox and open it again.
Searching. This is where Notes really rocks. It makes searching your messages so difficult that I really think about it twice before doing it. It offers you two icons: a magnifier and some binoculars (you can look for them in the screenshot, if you like the ‘Where’s Wally?’ kind of games). Even today I can’t tell you the difference. I always use the keyboard shortcut that let me search in the subjects of the selected folder (so if I want to search in all my mail, I have to select the “All messages” folder).
There is another “search in deep” functionality but it is so slow that I difficultly dare to use it. When you are used to Gmail, or you have seen the way Apple Mail does it, searching in Notes is like going back 20 years.
Organizing. I like to archive most of the mails I receive. I have to do it in a local inbox, since my remote account has a limited size. I have tried hardly to find a shortcut for the action of archiving email, since I am always doing it. I haven’t being able to. I have googled for it, searched in the menus, looked for it in the help of Notes… Nothing. I am sure there is a way but I have been more than two years dragging the mail with my mouse, from the inbox, to the archive folder. There are like 10 buttons in the top of my inbox, each one with its shortcut, and no one of them could do this.
Organizing in folders is also very difficult. The problems start even before the drag and drop process. If you try to reorganize the folders hierarchy you’ll know what I am talking about.
Allan Cooper talks about 14 factors that make software polite. Lotus Notes violates them all. For example, when you want to delete a file attachment of a message, an annoying modal dialog ask you whether you are sure, because it cannot be undone. Another example is the inability Lotus has to remember the state I left the workbench. Everyday I start Notes and it shows me the start panel. I always open my personal mail, and also the corporate mail of my team. Everyday I have to repeat the same operation and it annoys me, specially because Notes is not a lightweight and responsive product.
In a few months we will start using Microsoft Outlook at work. I haven’t used Outlook in the last 6 years but I am totally convinced I am going to be much more happy (because whatever Outlook does to manage your mail, it couldn’t be worse).
Mac OS X Time Machine: how complex systems can have wonderful user interfaces
If you have ever used some kind of Backup software, you can easily think about how many options you can configure: destination folder, backups periodicity, whether to compress them or not and the level of compression, scheduling, folders to include and exclude… Simply configuring the scheduling can make you visit several wizard pages choosing the days of the week, the exact time of each backup and so on. The next screenshot shows the configuration options of Time Machine, the Mac OS X backup system:
You don’t have to worry about configuring anything because the application makes all the decisions for you. And I loved that approach. Even in the case where the backup disk run out of space, the system warns you about it, telling you that it is going to start discarding old backups. It makes the decision for you and let you keep working.
And this way of doing things is totally logical because, after all, your most probable goals when you are using backup software don’t include spending your time creating enterprise-class backup configurations and schedules. What you probably want are two things: recovering some missing files occasionally, or restoring the full system in case of disaster. And both things can be done easily with the Time Capsule. And in the case of browsing the history of your files, the interaction design is totally outstanding.