27 January 2008 ~ 3 Comments


For the last 10 years, web browsers have been more or less capable of downloading files on their own. The worlds’ collective “downloads” folder sags in testament to this fact.

Adobe, continuing its tradition of wildly over complicating the download process, presents us with this confusing array of controls, progress meters and data – all while downloading a single file (Adobe Reader).  Here we have the “Adobe Download Manager powered by getPlus”.

Some observations about this dialog (that appears to have been programatically generated?)

  1. Three progress meters. Three. To download a single file? Anything more than a single progress bar is exposing too much of what’s going on under the hood – none of which we need to know about.
  2. “A short-cut to resume download and installation from point of interruption has been placed on your desktop.” What is a “point of interruption”? Has the download been interrupted? It appears to be proceeding normally.
  3. Why is the icon so bloody large? It’s positively massive, dwarfing all other components in the composition.
  4. There’s too much confusing terminology for Adobe Reader downloaders.  Unless this audience is computer scientists or software developers, because who else understands “KB/sec” or “Decompression 20.9%”?  More importantly, who cares?

What if we reduced this dialog to its bare essentials? And what are those “essentials” anyway?

Progress and termination.

Look, we’ve even left the gargantuan icon in place. I had to point it out in case you missed it…

20 January 2008 ~ 0 Comments

Swimming with Sharks

Every Asian grocery store I’ve been to features an aisle of extraordinarily priced items, typically with no English labels. I can only assume these are shark fins?

Notice the pricing: $260 per pound. This jar was surrounded with several others, all of which were priced well over $150 per pound. Are these the typical purchasing weights for items like this? At those prices?

How about: 1/4lb or 4oz. – $65

The usability implications should be obvious – label appropriate to use, saving people the effort of calculating these numbers on their own. Especially when the division isn’t quite clear (I used the Mac calculator widget to do this :)

I could be wrong… people could be scooping up shark fins by the pound!

19 January 2008 ~ 0 Comments

Scrolling is Painful Enough REDUX

One of my first posts was in regards to custom scrollbars – a way that designers can take an already cumbersome interaction and turn it up to 11.

With the release of Office 2008, I had a quick visit over at Mactopia, Microsoft’s Mac homepage which received a recent revamp. Clicking on each Office product kicks off a Flash movie. During the movie, different areas of the screen activate depending on which feature is being discussed. I had a look at the Entourage video.

This is something I’ve never seen before.

The extreme ends of the scrollbar aren’t anchored. The entire thing moves when you drag it. I thought the interface was broken when I picked it up.

Why go to all this effort when they could have just used a few more vertical pixels and shown the entire paragraph? My guess is the designer valued uniformity and alignment of the text blocks over functionality. Nope, take a look at the full row of text.

They aren’t uniform to begin with.

“Well Rob, there was probably a lot of scrolling and it would have really knocked things out of whack.” Actually, there’s about 10 pixels worth to scroll, if that. The initial viewport obscures about half a line of text.

I’m amazed how we find new and interesting ways to abuse scrollbars.   I hope the irony of that section’s name (“Tame the Chaos”) isn’t lost on anyone :)

16 January 2008 ~ 0 Comments


Today while depositing a few cheques, the Wells Fargo ATM asked me an interesting question.

To which account should the cheques be deposited?

Hmm… Well in this situation I’m just going to say that I feel comfortable in allowing the ATM to make that decision for me.

Then again, if anyone or anything could get this one wrong, it would be a computer :-)

13 January 2008 ~ 0 Comments

Unnecessary Repetition

In Windows XP, you’re asked to repeat your wireless network password, which is really quite meaningless because if the password is invalid, you won’t be able to connect to the network.

While one might argue that there are several things that might prevent you from connecting, a bad password is likely your problem.

Microsoft got this one right between XP and Vista.

Peripherally related are cases where we ask users to repeat themselves even when they can see the data they are entering. It is not uncommon to see this strange phenomenon with email addresses.

10 January 2008 ~ 0 Comments

Invisible Text

One advantage HTML has over desktop applications is that we can search for functionality.

Rather than hunt for the ability to obtain the current page in printable form, why not search for the word “print”?

The BBC understands:

…as does ABC News:

Amazon.com however, has room to grow:

It’s possible to overlay text on to an image to give the appearance of a button while retaining searchability. There are other reasons as well, most notably that graphical text doesn’t resize for vision impaired users.

16 December 2007 ~ 0 Comments

Updates Incoming!

One month to the day since my last post.  Unfortunately, it’s not for lack of usability issues to discuss :-)

16 November 2007 ~ 0 Comments

Collection Overhead (eBay)

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.

15 November 2007 ~ 1 Comment

It’s Our Problem, Never Theirs

While I dig the new Yahoo! Mail interface, this is positively dreadful.

No matter how good your error messages or how easy it is for someone to communicate the content of the error, this is never appropriate:

In case the text is too small for you to read:

The server failed to send back valid XML. Please contact Yahoo! Customer Care and let them know what you were doing when you saw this message. Thanks!

Method: ListFolders, HTTP Status: 502, Status Text: Connection refused

XML Parsing Error: junk after document element Location: http://…/ Line 2, Column 1.


Imagine this conversation:

Rob: “Hey Jim, I just realized something about those reports I sent you.”

Jim: “Oh? What’s that?”

Rob: “I made some typos…”

Jim: “That’s too bad.”

Rob: “Yeah it sure is. Say, could you send me an email telling me I made some typos? But I’m not going to tell you my email address or phone number. You’ll have to figure that out.”

Jim: “Are you out of your mind?”

Yahoo! on the other hand, thinks Jim would respond like this:

Yahoo! Jim: “Sure Rob, I’ll stop what I’m doing to write you a detailed email about exactly what you did wrong. I’ll also take time to find out your email or phone number even though you opted not to tell me when you told me to contact you.”

These reports are the worst possible examples of excise. In no way is performing an error reporting step part of any conceivable goal.  Asking your users to do things servicing the application (and not themselves) is a form of disrespect like no other.

If your application is capable of detecting an error state, it’s capable of doing something about it.  Don’t ask your users to do your job!

Don’t do this.


12 November 2007 ~ 0 Comments

“Rich, Modeless Feedback”

Has it been a week already? Yikes!

Throughout About Face, Cooper makes uses of the phrase “rich, modeless feedback” to describe passive communication of information without requiring navigation through an interface.

For example, in Microsoft Word:

At a glance you know your place in the document, how many pages there are, etc. Simple and effective.

iTunes takes this to a whole new level:

Good grief! Look at all this juicyness!

At a glance, I know:

  • I’m busy downloading something.
  • I’m busy downloading ‘1’ something. What it is isn’t really important, since I initiated the download, I know what it is. This level of granularity suffices. Although perhaps a % indicator would be more useful.
  • My “Grey Nano” is charging.
  • My “Grey Nano” is syncing.
  • I have the ability to eject the “Grey Nano”.

All of this is done within about a square inch of screen real estate (depending on your resolution) and without requiring any special navigation.


Not all information should be presented at this level. For example, word and characters counts are not readily available in Microsoft Word, instead requiring navigation to the Tools | Word Count pull-down menu:

Deciding which goes where requires insight into your users and their goals (of course!)

The mistake many developers and designers make is forgetting the difference between data and information, and spamming users with everything but the kitchen sink…

Which is effectively nothing.  Get this right!