Why I Love UX (or How to Piss Off an Entire Department!)

Last Friday, I tweeted something which was badly worded, and managed to piss off much of our UX team (not to mention a few UX people far and wide):

Pissing off UX

Now I ask you, how could that post possibly offend anyone (note sarcasm)?

So, I would like to clarify what I was thinking when I posted that (and again ran into the problem that most of my thoughts do not fit into 140 characters).

First, I had been reading a number of posts and other articles by so-called UX experts, thought leaders, and others (all off whom shall go nameless, as I do not need anymore flames – well, actually I enjoy flames, but am full at the moment). Like many fanatics, they have (in my humble opinion) some fairly radical beliefs that are not well grounded in the real world. These are the “UX people” to whom I was referring in my post. Yes, my choice of words was bad.

Secondly, I have a great deal of respect for the UX process. I even have a lot of respect for most of the UX people I know (even the ones with whom I disagree). Frequently it is the UX department with whom I have an issue. I have the same issue with Marketing (the department) versus Marketing (the process), and with Architecture (the department) versus Architecture (the process).

The comparison with architecture is particularly relevant, as I have had many arguments over the years in software organizations as to whether “architect” is a role or a job title – should there be an “architecture group” separate from the development team. My belief is a resounding NO! I tend to believe that “architect” is a role which and individual with the appropriate skills and training assumes on a specific project. On another project, that same person may be a senior developer. My concern with architects in a group by them selves is that I have frequently seen these groups (a) become extremely elitist; and (b) become too far removed from the reality of implementation, leading to architectures which are elegant, beautiful, and difficult to impossible to build on-time and on-budget. Often, the 99% philosophically correct, current-best-practice architecture is not necessary, when the 80% solution can actually be implemented on-time and on-budget.

I find that UX groups is some organizations, and UX thought-leaders in the world at large, are falling victim to much the same challenges I described for architecture. Too much separation between UX and implementation creates certain challenges.  And, there is often little willingness to deviate from the “philosophically correct vision” in favour of practical reality.

And as a final thought, I definitely do not have all the answers in these areas – I just have some very definite questions about how we (in the global sense) do things.

Windows 8: 5 Things that Really Bug Me

I have been running Windows 8 for a while now (as many people have, given Microsoft’s approach to releasing “previews”). I started playing with it just after the //Build/ conference in 2011, and switched to running it full-time on all of my day-to-day computers back in June. I even blogged a bit about my initial experiences, but I stopped because there was not that much to write about. It is my personal experience that once you get past the initial shock of the user interface changes, doing day-to-day work on Windows 8 is not all that different than Windows 7 (note I am referring to Windows 8 here, not Windows RT).

I really like Windows 8, but I am not sure I would upgrade to it “just because”. If it is on a computer I buy, I will enjoy using it, but will likely not upgrade any more machines.

But…there are some things about Windows 8 that annoy me to no end. Like most things Microsoft does, Windows 8 is 80% great, and 20% ranging from annoying to intolerable. Here are my top 5 issues (at least for today).

It Is Not Finished

This has been said by many reviewers. Some refer to it as not finished, others as schizophrenic. Still other descriptions have been even more colourful.

My issue is specifically with the features which require you to switch to the traditional desktop to do things.

One example is computer settings. While the Settings charm allows you to get to some settings (either directly or via the Change PC settings link), the vast majority of settings require you to jump to the Desktop and open the Control Panel, just as you always have.

Sorry, Microsoft, that is just plain lazy. If there is a setting to which you want users to have access, then present it through your Modern UI.

Another example is Windows Explorer. Why do I have to go to the Desktop to move files around, look for files, etc. I can see maybe having the Desktop Windows Explorer there as a last resort, but I should be able to do anything a normal user would want to do with files through the primary UI. If Microsoft cannot figure out a good way to use the Modern UI paradigm to implement file manipulations, then it isn’t a very strong paradigm.

 The Mail App

I am torn on my opinion of the Mail app. Actually, no I am not – I hate it.

For the most part, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it (other than the lack of support for POP3 – I mean come on!). There is also nothing especially right about it either. It looks like pretty much every other mail client out there.

When I read the post Building the Mail app, it is clear that the team put a lot of thought into how to build the Mail app. Unfortunately, much of it was wrong.

Yes, it supports various “Windows 8 glitter”, like sharing contracts, search, Live Tiles, pinning accounts, etc. But is that enough?

I really would have liked to see email “reimagined” a little . The way it came out just looks like traditional email prettied up a little (very little). Could no one imagine any strategy using the Metro design language/Modern UI to actually make working with email better?

The PDF Viewer

What could go wrong with a PDF Viewer, right?

Well, how about not remember things like how I use the software? Or at least giving me the ability to tell the software what settings I want to change?

The big one for me is Continuous versus Single Page reading. I like to have PDFs in continuous mode. And, every time I open a PDF in the PDF App, I tell the app I want to use Continuous view. And every time, it forgets.

I know this is a nit-picky kind of thing – but it is endemic in Microsoft’s Apps. To not remember my preferences automatically is bad design. To not even allow me to set my preferences is unforgivably bad design.

SkyDrive App

Ok, this is another very small thing, but I run into it so often that it drives me nuts.

Open the SkyDrive App, select a file, and click the download charm. You are then presented with a UI to allow you to choose a destination folder, and a button that says “Choose this folder”. So far so good, right?

Click the button. The button then switches to say “Ok”. Congratulations! You have now added one completely useless interaction to something I will do all the time. Yes, I might have selected the wrong folder, but it is hardly irreversible. If it is the wrong folder, I can move it. Don’t annoy me on every interaction, just to handle the “exception” case.

Office Apps

I am not talking about the Office Desktop applications here, or even the Office RT applications, but about the Modern UI/Windows Store apps – OneNote MX, and Lync 2013.

Both of these are cute proof-of-concept sort of apps, but they are functionally really disappointing. I sympathize that the Office team was probably brought into the game quite late, and that they were in middle of their own major product release cycle, but better not to release anything that what you have. Neither of these are good examples of Modern UI apps, and some of the missing pieces are really stupid (why can’t I change the pen colour in OneNote MX? why can’t I pin a User or Group from Lync to the Start menu?)

There are other things that bug me, but these are the five which are top of mind today. I also kind of annoyed at some of the limitations of the App development model, but that will have to wait for another post!

 

Usability: Are “Stupid Users” really just a symptom of lazy software?

Any conversation with programmers or technical support people regarding users will often lead to many stories about “can you believe how stupid users are?” But how often is it really the software that is stupid, rather than the users?

Users frequently make some very simplistic assumptions about software (or computerized devices in general):

  • Simple things will work
  • If it lets me do it, everything must be ok.

These are not really bad assumptions. Many of the things the mere users try to do only sound stupid to those “in the know” – those who have been suitably trained and conditioned by software to know that the perfectly reasonable things the user wants to do are indeed stupid.

Take an example. A user has an MP3 file, and they really want a WAV file. Naively, the user renames the file from a .mp3 extension to a .wav extension, and is baffled that the file does not behave as a WAV file. We all know that this is not how software works, right? This user then becomes another story for some tech support person.

However, there was nothing wrong with the user. The user wanted a WAV. The OS let him rename the file from .mp3 to .wav, so everything must be ok, right?

I would suggest that it is the software here that is stupid, not the user. Or more correctly, the software is just lazy. It cannot be bothered preventing the user from doing things that don’t make sense. It cannot be bothered acting in an intuitive manner, or at least informing the user that it is not acting so. Hey, maybe the software could actually do something useful, like convert the MP3 file to a WAV file, which is what the user wants in the first place. Or at the very least, tell the user how to do it.

In general, users are not stupid. They just want to do stuff, and they expect software to allow them to do it in an intuitive manner. So if your tech support logs are filled with stories of “stupid users”, maybe you should have a long, hard look at your software.