The Lumber Room

"Consign them to dust and damp by way of preserving them"

Posts Tagged ‘usability


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Good software does what you want. Preferably without your having to tell it to. And it matches your mental model of what you expect things to work like.

We have come a long way since the days personal computers were severely constrained in their resources, but some traditions have not changed. The humanized weblog looks at the save icon, but I want to point out that the “saving” “feature” is itself an anachronism. There is no analogue of the concept of “saving” a file in the real world; when you write on a sheet of paper the change is permanent. Why, then, does most software require you to explicitly “save” something if you want to leave it permanent? The answer, I guess, is that a long time ago, a “save” was an expensive action (I remember seeing “Saving…” progress bars), so you wanted users to be in control of when it happened, so as to not annoy them.

Today, personal computers have enough resources that in many applications (such as text editing), there is really no reason for software to insist that you remember to “save”, so as to not lose your work. Still, programs continue behaving this way, partly out of tradition, and partly because no one gives a thought to usability.

Fortunately, the rise of applications on the web brought with it an “everything old is new again” phenomenon and programmers began to take a fresh (and naive) look at everything, which, while often causing them to stupidly repeat the mistakes of desktop programs from decades ago and generally be inconsistent, has also allowed them to throw away meaningless traditions in situations where they don’t matter.

I believe it was Gmail which started this, and now Gmail, Blogger, WordPress, Google Docs, and any number of online text editing applications now “automatically save” your work for you every few seconds, and this idea is finally (slowly) taking hold in desktop applications as well.

Written by S

Tue, 2008-01-22 at 21:42:25

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Google Calendar bug

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Google Calendar is one of the best things ever written. Its features are useful, its UI is brilliant, and its “quick add” feature alone is worth raving about (and I have). I keep all scheduled events on Google Calendar, even my timetable — creating recurring events (like a seminar series) is very easy. (Aside: I’ve never used a calendar for a todo list…)

Random usability comments follow; please don’t read beyond this point.

Google Calendar has several “views” — “Agenda” shows all your events as a list ordered by time (and date, of course), and the “Day”, “Week”, “Month” views show a day, week, month at a time respectively. There is also a “Custom” view which can be set to several durations, from “Next 2 days” to “Next 4 weeks”. (Actually the menu ought to call the options “2 days”, “4 weeks” etc., because these views can be moved to other periods just like any others, but it’s possible that “Next 3 days” in the menu is less confusing than “3 days”.) If you haven’t used Google Calendar, see this blog post for screenshots. (Aside: Found some useful tips here(mostly what I’ve already been doing).)

I use “Next 2 weeks”, because “1 week” is vertical (events are shown in boxes according to their size, intersecting ones intersect, etc… this is a nice feature, but it is distracting to see it except when you specifically want it), and “1 month” shows too few events per day (because I put my timetable, seminars, and subscribe to several calendars, I sometimes have 15 events a day, most of which won’t fit). “Next 2 weeks” fits about 11 events per day, and is a big enough interval for scheduling most events (usually from email I get), so it’s perfect.

Here’s evidence of a thoughtful, well-designed UI: What do think happens when you switch from one view to another? (Takes just a click, BTW, not going to some other “Settings” window and changing it, or even pulling up a menu.)

This is what happens: If you switch to a bigger duration (such as from “Week” to “Month”), it simply shows the period the view you were looking at was in. (Doesn’t reset to the default view for that duration, which is what bad UI would do.) If you switch to a smaller duration, it picks the first period of that duration in the view you were currently looking at (nice!), except if — and this is what distinguishes good UI from the mediocre — today was in the current view. Because if the view is “month”, and it’s the current month, chances are that you’re actually looking at today, and when you switch to “week” you want the current week, not the first week of the month. For other months, it makes sense to switch to the first week (anything else would seem less “logical”). This is what Google Calendar does.

Except — and this is the bug — it doesn’t work when I’m in the custom view. Or at least, my custom view of “2 weeks” (and “3 weeks” and “4 weeks” — I didn’t try the others because I’ll only know the difference on special days of the week, and Thursday is not one of them.) If I’m looking at today in the “Next 2 weeks” view and I switch to the “Day” view, it shows me the first day in my 2-week-period, which is some confusing day I don’t want. Yeah, I know I have to only click on the “Today” button each time, and even all of those times put together it’s not really worth my going to all the trouble of writing this, but the point is that it violates the Rule of Least Surprise (also called the Principle of Least Astonishment), and it annoys me.

This ought to be fixed, but of course, like most other closed software development, it is hard to find a human to speak to. At least they have a “Contact Us” web form….

Written by S

Thu, 2007-11-01 at 14:16:12

Drop down list of country names

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First saw it here:as days pass by » Blog Archive » Form usability, and then here.

The point is that most of the time we don’t really care exactly which country the user is from.

My current plan for the OPC is to have two radio buttons (and one below the other, of course), one that says “India” and the other that says “Other: ” and has a text input form next to it.

Update [2008-07-08]: [Yes, that’s what we used, as I remember it, and it went well.]
It turns out that Peter-Paul Koch of has already done this: Usable Forms

Written by S

Sat, 2007-02-10 at 09:50:58

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Web Design: Accessibility

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Look at Dive into Accessibility; another site of Mark Pilgrim’s.

Some interesting things:

  1. The table trick. It is explained very well here
  2. To test how it works in Lynx: Lynx viewer
  3. To test how it works in other browsers: Browsercam (paid), or browsershots (free).
  4. To test how it looks to colour-blind people: Vischeck. Colour vision is also examined here and here.
  5. Group funding:
  6. Using relative font sizes: here, here, and here

Written by S

Sun, 2007-01-21 at 00:51:00

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Tassilo Horn’s blog set me off. is a useful guide to X window managers.
dwm is a dynamic window manager (screenshot) (IINM, “{dynamic,tiling} window managers” are the same thing.) Stumpwm, of course, is well-known.
[Update: As tiling window managers go, XMonad is definitely what you should use.]

The first part of this post, linked to from the ion wm manifesto, makes a distinction between usability (easy-to-use) and approachability (easy-to-learn). That in turn linked to the paper called “The Anti-Mac interface” [ACM]. I felt this was very well-written; it is something everyone should read.
There is a post called “Towards the Anti-Mac” which makes some points and claims that some Free Software is already moving in that direction. I didn’t read it very carefully, but it didn’t seem very convincing.

Offtopic: A post that says that “windows users are actually very very patient and willing to go through much work in order to get a particular application or peripheral to operate.”
Finally, a bunch of stuff that makes fun of Jakob Nielson. I didn’t know that he had made enough controversial statements to be made fun of, or even was famous enough.
(And from one of them, some Flash defenders.)

Written by S

Thu, 2007-01-18 at 19:29:35

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