In a previous post, I commented on the complexity of eBay’s message management when no messages were present. What about when we have one or a few messages?
This is a frequent problem many interfaces suffer from, one that we’ll refer to as “Collection Overhead” for lack of a better name. How do you present yourself when you have few or no items to manage?
We programmers think in terms of 1s and 0s – binary. There is effectively no difference between one message and 10 messages. They’re both greater than zero. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just have one interface that supported anywhere from zero to hundreds of messages? Sure! Yes!
In this case however, there are unfortunate side effects. To view and delete a single message, eBay presents me with eighteen controls.
To make matters worse, the interface is cluttered with explanatory elements that are not very useful when there are few messages:
- “Messages (1-1 of 1, 1 unread)” – not very helpful.
- There’s a legend that’s effectively meaningless to me (none of the icons appear in the display).
- There are several sentences of text to explain the interface. This is a very bad smell (to borrow from Fowler’s book on Refactoring).
- I’m viewing Page 1 of 1. If that’s the case, pagination is irrelevant.
There are a few strategies for dealing with Collection Overhead:
The first and most obvious is to remove overhead unless absolutely necessary. Don’t present a legend explaining 3 types of icons, none of which appear in the interface!
Your biggest gain however, will come from realizing that you don’t need to support an arbitrary number of items in your collections.
In eBay’s example, do expired messages clean themselves up regularly enough to ensure that 80% of people have less than 25 messages at any given time?
To a programmer an interface is robust if it can handle 2 messages and 2000 messages. To a user who only ever works with about 15 message at a time, the management overhead is overkill.