Archive for the ‘usability’ Tag

Fighting Usability, or, Learning to See the Big Picture

There was a recent interview in the L.A. Times with Wes Anderson and some of the crew members that worked on the film The Fantastic Mr. Fox.  The article has been getting a lot of attention because the crew members in charge of making it look so stinkin’ amazing gave some pretty harsh criticism about Anderson’s demands.  Some notable quotes from the article:

“Anderson had no idea that his ignorance of stop-motion…and exacting ideas concerning the film’s look would so exasperate his crew.”

""Honestly? Yeah. He has made our lives miserable," the film’s director of animation, Mark Gustafson, said during a break in shooting.”

“Animation director Gustafson…admitted he found some of Anderson’s directive’s bewildering. "There’s lots of things I lobbied against in this movie," he said.  "He’s pushed it further than I would have been comfortable pushing it," Gustafson continued. "He definitely doesn’t have some of the reservations that I have from working with this stuff for years.”

The whole article wasn’t completely full of hate; I’ve just chosen these particular quotes to illustrate my point.  I get this kind of guff and criticism at work too.  I really don’t know much about code or what it takes to implement certain things, but I do know exactly how I want things to work, look, and feel.  I know what kinds of problems I need to plan for and I know what will be deemed unusable, difficult, or confusing by users.  During a recent discussion about how something should work, one of the developers exclaimed, “We’ve already pushed the limits of the web as far as we can, and now you want this?!” 

My response, of course, was yes. 

The whole team room was against me. 

It was a crappy week. 

However, when they got it done and demoed it for us, everyone was blown away by how great of an add it was and how much of a difference it made.  Including the people who gave me hell for making them do it in the first place.

I know I will probably receive criticism for this post, but the fact of the matter is that sometimes you have to do things that are hard or that you don’t want to do or that frustrate you in order to produce the best product (I certainly do, even though I don’t write code.  Developers aren’t the only ones feeling pressure to complete impossible tasks with ridiculous deadlines). 

Take a look at the visual feast that is The Fantastic Mr. Fox.  For as much detail as the animation has and for as beautiful as everything looks and feels, wouldn’t you agree that it was worth it?  I’m not saying don’t fight back if someone is pushing you for something that is going to break your back or break the bank in time it will take to implement, but certainly weigh the value of the functionality that’s being asked for and figure out if it’s worth it, despite how impossible or daunting it may seem. 

As you develop, try to envision the end product, the big picture, rather than getting mired in the difficulty of the bit you are currently working on.  It might help give you that burst you need to push through the hard times. 

…or just make a voodoo doll of the person making the demands.

Usability is Design

I don’t have a snappy title for this post.  This just has to be the title, because it is exactly what I need to say.

After watching the greatest movie ever made for designers and subsequently having some great conversation with David Laribee this past weekend, David made a statement that has been stuck in my head all week:

“Usability is design.”


I fully agree with this statement.  Having read The Designer’s Bible to help me with the web design I’ve been doing the past two months, I’ve been looking at everything with a much more critical eye.  And everything I notice is a usability issue.  Yes, flashy touches are nice, but…are you sure? 

In our most recent project, the devs made this thing happen so that when you add a specimen to an order, the background of the related box softly flashes this very subtle green, just for a second.  It is so slick and so hot, and it is the perfect visual indicator that the action you took was accepted by the system.  It’s not just something flashy and there to look fancy; it is useful.  That’s what I like; I could care less for Web 2.0-lookin’ jazz and noisy, crowded interfaces, give me something useful.

Think about some sites you maybe frequent: Google and Netflix.  What the hell does Google have, design-wise (besides an awesome logo on special occasions )?  Nada.  It’s white.  It’s got a searchbox and some links at the top.  It’s boring.  However, I can get anywhere I need within Google with those Plain Jane links.  I love being able to look at images from the context of my search; I love being able to get to my mail from there so I can paste a link in and send it off.  It’s easy.  It’s usable.  What else could they possibly need?  It is one instance where All the White Space in the World doesn’t kill me.  Because they don’t need anything else.

And Netflix…God, could there be a better website?!  I have never needed to navigate away from where I am in order to do something I want to do.  I can always get to whatever I need from the context of the page I am on.  It’s so damned usable.  Have you ever had to look up how to find/do something on Netflix?  Dubious.  The design of the page just falls into place based on the usability. 

And that’s how you should design.

Don’t design with flashy hotness in mind.  Design with usability in mind.  Usability should always be your primary focus.  If you are a designer you probably know how to make things pretty and know what people want to see.  So that stuff will fall into place, eh?

Usability is design.  Don’t let things get noticed.  Don’t make people look for how to do something in your software.  Make it intuitive; let the hotness lay naturally on top of the usability.

I could make this a longer post, but sommmmeeeebody always complains about my long posts, so I’ll just leave you with The Least Usable Popular Website Ever:


Poke around it.  Let your hate grow.  Build yer shit better than this.  Go go go!

Usability: Your Mom Loves It, or, I Friggin’ Hate My Car Stereo

I friggin’ hate my car stereo.

I installed it about two months ago and have just been hoping that it will get better/easier/I will magically figure it out, but no.  It makes me angry almost every day.

What’s that you say?  Read the manual?  Hell no.

I hate you.

I read through some parts, things that I needed to know immediately, but I don’t want to read it.  Most people don’t want to read it.  How many of you read the manual for each new product that you get/new software that you use?  Do you read a 60-page manual, or do you poke around with something until you’ve figured out how to use it?  Well, guess what.  Your users probably do that too.

If you’re anything like me, you poke around and swear and complain until you’ve figured it out, and then triumphantly give the bird to the technology that you have made your bitch.  I have given the bird to my car stereo several times already, but never triumphantly.  Here are some reasons why:

1) It scrolls a title across so you can read the full thing.  Well, that’s great, but it can fit probably 16 or 17 characters on the display, and it scrolls every name.  So when the song Milk by Kings of Leon comes on, it will scroll that title.  Four characters.  (note: This was the first time I noticed this particular annoyance, and what a prime example.  FOUR CHARACTERS.  Are you kidding me?!)  This is an easy piece of acceptance criteria that was missed.

As a Pioneer car stereo owner I need text to scroll when a song comes on so that I can see the full body of text.

– If text is <n characters do not scroll.

Ta-da.  That was hard.

With just a little more attention to detail and developer thought this would not annoy me EVERY DAY.  Developers should be thinking about multiple scenarios and general usability as they build new software.  This was simply an oversight and a lack of thought.

2) You can only control the iPod through the stereo itself, not through the iPod.  Well, you can if you have any models except X and Y (I have Y…I don’t remember exactly what it is, whatever generation video yadda).  A) Why make it compatible with every iPod and iPhone except the one that I use (and one other one)? B) I have 4800 songs on my iPod.  In order to use the stereo to find the track I want I have to go through EVERY ARTIST.  And the scroll wheel on the stereo?  Not so fast.  It is easier to unplug the iPod and find the item on there and play it, then hook it up.

I shouldn’t have to figure out alternate solutions to play my music.  I shouldn’t have to unplug my iPod every time.  The solution should present itself.

3) There is a way to shuffle the artist but you have to, like, uncover a staff and put it in just the right spot and the light has to pass through the glass and indicate where the buttons are to make that functionality happen.  I don’t know how to do it.  The times I have made it happen have been purely serendipitous.  I do know that every time I try to do it, I shuffle all 4800 songs and sometimes it sets my iPod itself to “shuffle artist” so the next time I try to listen to an album it plays it in random order.  Changing settings on my iPod without my permission?  That’s a paddlin’.  The functionality should be limited to the stereo itself.  Now, when I listen to my iPod on my sounddock or with headphones later, I will have to go into my Settings and change it, even though I never elected for the change to happen in the first place.  Poor.  Usability.

So, let me get to the point (finally).

I am a fairly typical user of this system.  Maybe I have a leg up because I have a pretty good handle on technology, but in general I am someone who listens to music in my car and can press buttons.  This shouldn’t be so hard.  Especially for someone (fairly) adept at using electronic devices.

Usability is a really key part of good software.  The book “The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald Norman is one of the greatest books you can read as someone interested in making quality software.  One of my favorite points that it makes is that users should not notice design.  If a user notices design, it’s generally because they have been given cause to because they can’t figure out how to do something.  Your design should be very intuitive and friendly to users; they should be able to just breeze through it without thinking.  If you have to put a lot of labels or instructions on something, you’re probably doing it wrong.  Don’t get me wrong, often some type of directive is necessary (working in medical software, it’s hard to get around sometimes).  However your system/site/app should be pretty damned user-friendly.

The keys to good usability really boil down to just a few things:

1) Developers need to put thought into the use cases of the software and multiple scenarios for which it will be used.  Think about the value that you are providing to a user and how you can make that even better.  Kaizen that shit.  Put a lot of thought into what you are making so your users don’t have to put any thought into using it.

2) Attention to detail is critical.  Think about anything you buy.  Handmade things in particular.  You want the one that looks the best, don’t you?  Well, maybe you want the quirkiest because you’re the hippest hipster of the bunch, but you get the idea.  Quality is absolutely necessary if you want to sell a product and attention to detail is a cornerstone of quality.  Yes, of course it’s important to hit the big points and get the big features, but something with a lot of great features that misses a lot of small things and is wholly unusable is not a product that people want to buy.  I consider any lack of attention to detail to be a bug, whether it is an actual defect or not.  Ignorance is a defect.

3) Make it intuitive.  If you’re developing iteratively (which you should be), demo it to your users.  Can they figure it out?  How many questions have they asked you about what something does?  Go from there.  When I design things I like to try to think about my mom using them.  She doesn’t know what the internet is, so it’s really an extreme example, but in general I try to think about people who don’t have a lot of technical prowess.  A lot of our software is designed for doctor’s offices, and an awful lot of people in these offices are averse to new technology and in general using computers/software.  What I need to do is design something that will be so easy to use that it a) won’t completely change their workflow/add time to their daily tasks b) will be enjoyable to use.  That is how you should make all of your software.

There are a million things to say about usability so this is likely the first in a series of posts (mostly this one is just a rant about that damned stereo), but I welcome any input or questions for future posts in the comments.