Open Letter to UX Designers

Do not move things right before I click on them.

Windows this means you. Opening up a new window steals focus from my mouse to the new one. Opening a new window when I did not explicitly request it and while I am typing or navigating something in order to do something critical infuriates me.

Facebook this means you too. Adding new comments to the Newsfeed a tenth of a second before I click on a comment box means I click on the wrong one. It is the kinds of thing that will drive people like me to Google+.

My coworkers will thank you too for me not discovering creative new obscenities to describe your products.

Sincerely,
Ezra

 

Microsoft Outlook 2007 Wishlist

From 2001 to 2006, Microsoft Outlook was the email client I used for work (and on my home computer to access work stuff). Back then, Exchange was not available, so a number of the features were more hacks than reality. However, it worked pretty well.

When I changed jobs, Netscape and Thunderbird were the pre-installed clients. I opted for Thunderbird. It worked pretty well for me. Calendaring was in MeetingMaker. Everything worked pretty well.

Recently work shifted to Exchange, so going back to Outlook made sense. Maybe because I have so much experience, the transition was not as bad as it might have been. Still… These are gotchas which have annoyed me lately:

  1. Editable subject usability: The emails from our client issue tracking system put the description where its hidden. I was really pissed that I could not edit the subject until I figured out unlike most software which changes the shading to show it is now editable, Outlook just lets me edit at any time. Also, editing the subject after it is used by something else like a task results in the change in the email but not the task. (The main reason I want to change them is so it appears correctly in the task list. ) Copying to a second email results in the same problem. Apparently I have to either create a new task and copy-n-paste the subject I want or forward the email to myself.
  2. Spacebar moves to next message instead of next new message: I really like the Thunderbird method of skipping to the next unread message when I hit the spacebar at the end of the current message. It even will find the next unread message in another folder. Outlook just advances to the next message.
  3. Boolean is more than OR: I had this fantastic Thunderbird filter which looked for user@ AND domain.tld. Outlook only honors OR. We have 15 admin nodes and databases which send up reports. Alerts and tickets come from a different source and unaffected by this.
  4. Search ignores special characters: I thought in the past I had sent email to abc-defghi@domain.tld. However, the message bounced, so I searched my email for part of the address “abc-defghi” as its not in the address book. I got results which match “abc” not “abc-defghi”. So it ignored the hyphen and everything after. FAIL!
  5. Send email as plain text or paste a plain text: Yes, I know lots of people have HTML capable clients. I hate Outlook puts my replies in a sickly blue font. When I copy and paste from the elsewhere in the message, it changes the font. So then I have to go and do formatting to have a presentable email. I just want to type and send. I don’t care about fonts, colors, etc. If I did, then I would create a web page. … (Added 2009-JUN-03)

That’s it for now.

Tumblr

I’m not a fan of Tumblr. At the moment I use it for a partial life stream (a chronological aggregated view of your life activities both online and offline – thanks Krynsky). It is just publishing a feed of several of my blogs. It a very limited public view.

The one main thing I dislike about Tumblr is the lack of comments. While my blog doesn’t have a lot of comments, I like that it offers the opportunity. Tumblr not having the opportunity means publishing in a vacuum. Which I think defeats the purpose. So I’d never use Tumblr to replace this or any other blog unless comments appear or comments become less important to me.

A confusing aspect of their service is the “Re-blog”. It wasn’t clear to me for some time items re-blogged were not created by the person doing so. Unlike most other services making life streams, there is not an indicator an item did not originate from another site other than in many cases they are abbreviated and have a link to the source.

I probably will continue to use it for some time to come. It just is not something I use. Stuff just flows there from the places I do use.

Found My Soul

A few weeks ago when I got home from out of town, I could not find the remote to my TiVo. On the third day, I ran to Best Buy to acquire a universal remote replacement.

The replacement lacked critical usability features. Several buttons were simply missing:

  1. Select button to navigate the menus.
  2. Guide button to see what is worth watching.
  3. Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down to rate items.

I found the TiVo remote eventually. All is well again in the world.

More Spiking CPU Over Assignments

More on concerns with editAssignmentSubmission.dowebct on Blackboard Vista nodes.

Found an error in the exceptions logs tied to one of the transactions:

Error occurred maintaining selective release status-Learning Object Id

It gets better…. The assignment in question? Not using selective release. Yeah. There is an error for an assessment. Hopefully it is just the assignments logic which causes hell on the nodes (database server seems unaffected). Well, the students are also affected as this seems to be the last thing they do in the session.

That selective release displays errors in the logic is quite awesome. I didn’t know the UI did this. However, to see it, I had to expand the right organizer page. Better usability would be to highlight all the errors to the designer. Heck, if there are errors, then it ought to be disabled. If the logic is known not to work, then why allow it to be active? You know… It might spin out of control. *headdesk*

False Panacea

I ran across Jon Udell’s post on The once and future university which pointed to Mike Caulfield’s post with the video (Transcript).

Technology, I think, is a false Panacea. The role of information technology is to better aggregate information for whatever it is we do. Such aggregation draws disparate sources together, but the sources fail to fit together well which makes work with them more challenging. True, higher education in general lags behind by years, but there are individuals taking these new technologies and applying them to teaching. Not every technology helps students to learn just by using it. A DVD player, for instance, requires an educator to determine when to use it: what materials are applicable to the class, which students need to see it, are the students ready to comprehend the content, etc. Its not, “Oh, there is a DVD player in the classroom, so lets play anything.”

You might be thinking I am a Luddite. These kids were only online 3.5 hours a day. I am online 8+ hours a day including weekends! We like technology because it can be very useful. The students writes thousands of emails a years. Great! Now, what did they learn out of those emails? I’ve taken an email based class and boy was I confused by the end. Of all the classes I still refer to this day, that class is never one of them. Of course, I can say the same of many email discussions I am involved to this day.

There is no single piece of technology by which everyone will benefit 100% information comprehension in every use. Some people find the same piece intuitive while others will become bogged down by frustration in the lack of usability. I suspect part of this is in how people learn. I learned a long time ago, there were people I could email a set of directions describing what to do and they could do it. Others might need screen shots. Others might need someone over the phone or face-to-face speaking words about what to do. Some required doing it right that instant so the motor action of each click would become ingrained. So many disparate ways to comprehend creates a need for the same information to exist in many different forms.

The teaching assistant or professor lecturing on a topic adequately meets the needs for some students. Its been ironic to me educators and Educational Psychologists have been studying this for years and implementing fantastic solutions in K-12 classrooms, but in universities these solutions barely make traction. I have faith they will. Technical schools, private colleges, and professional education institutes make use of the solutions. Retention has become an important measure of university success. Universities have responded by attempting to fix everything but the ways content is learned. As students fail out of the universities and find success with these higher education alternative, these students the universities failed will have children whom they encourage to find an alternative.

A More Usable Usability

Previously I have seen usability describing ease of using a web site. These four essences of usability are interesting.

I believe that to satisfy customers, a Web site must fulfill four distinct needs:

  • Availability: A site that’s unreachable, for any reason, is useless.
  • Responsiveness: Having reached the site, pages that download slowly are likely to drive customers to try an alternate site.
  • Clarity: If the site is sufficiently responsive to keep the customer’s attention, other design qualities come into play. It must be simple and natural to use – easy to learn, predictable, and consistent.
  • Utility: Last comes utility — does the site actually deliver the information or service the customer was looking for in the first place?

Web Usability: A Simple Framework

The first two items deal with system administration issues like the network, server(s), database, or application. Redundancy and proactive dealing with problems before they impact the system hopefully maximizes availibility. Optimization for performance hopefully maximizes responsiveness. An unhealthy database could fail to deliver information.

The last two items deal with design issues. More utility issues are likely based in design than tuning.


UPDATE: In my past life as a “Webmaster,” my fingers were dirty in all four aspects of usability. These were my servers and while not my design, I certainly influenced it by cleaning up the HTML and presentation. We created in-house everything except some outsourced photography and the Apache web server.

Blackboard’s Vista is a proprietary application with decent opportunities for instructional designers to provide clarity and utility. As much as it provides, clients often purchase or create additional applications to integrate with Vista to fill in holes Blackboard left. Okay, technically, WebCT left those holes, but Blackboard took the same model with Academic Suite. Blackboard doesn’t really intend to fill in those holes. They should for issues affecting most of their customers on each platform. This is the same approach taken by open source products with the caveat that third party companies are not filling in the holes, customers are developing their own solutions and providing back to the community.

The declining responsiveness of Vista over time definitely seems to create one frustrating difficulty for some clients. As the database tables get larger, responsiveness of the sites declines. Ouch. Delete it all… Oh, wait… Can we really do that?

links for 2007-07-18

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Obscurity Obsolescence

Along the same lines as Lacey’s Travel and Usability post, libraries are not really designed to be very usable. Well… unless you think like a librarian. Who gets a MLIS degree in order to use a library. Okay… I would… bad example.

The below article’s Digital Natives are kids who have played video games all their lives. Its reporting on a talk given at an ALA conference that librarians should redesign libraries to be friendlier to these Digital Natives (aka more like video games). The strawman argument:

When ‘Digital Natives’ Go to the Library :: Inside Higher Ed:

“The librarian as information priest is as dead as Elvis,” Needham said. The whole “gestalt” of the academic library has been set up like a church, he said, with various parts of a reading room acting like “the stations of the cross,” all leading up to the “altar of the reference desk,” where “you make supplication and if you are found worthy, you will be helped.”

This similie is warped in my experience. When I worked the reference desk, I didn’t so much bestow books upon supplicants and demonstrate how to use the tools. In essence, it was like explaining to a friend who is stuck how to play the game. I had heard of libraries in which non-library employees are not allowed access to the stacks, but I thought them rare.

Maybe instead of librarians playing more video games, students who play video games should actually use those skills when they go to the library? They can master a university library by spending a couple hours a week for a month browsing, identifying patterns, and enjoying the fruits of their efforts: interesting books. For me, “research” meant skimming all books and articles on a topic and tangents to the topic. I could spend a year absorbing knowledge in a good library. Working in the library explosed me to such an enormous wealth of knowledge free for the asking.

Instead, students typically go into a library to find a list of books or articles. They want to spend the minimum amount of effort to accomplish the goal. This certainly is not how they approach video games.