Usability Could Use Some Usable Heuristics

I’d imagine that the world’s worst presentations are given by the developers of presentation software. (I certainly sat through a staggeringly poor presentation by SGI folks during SGI’s heyday.)

I can’t find a good set of usability heuristics to beat crappy software over the head with (you must fix Blender because Tog says so), so I thought I’d write my own and pretend I’m some kind of authority.

So here, in order of decreasing importance, are my simple rules of usability.

  1. Consistency. It’s the bugbear of small minds, but guess what, a lot of users have those small minds. Don’t just be consistent with yourself — be consistent with as many things as possible.
  2. Progressive Disclosure. Show the stuff they probably want/need to see and allow the rest to be disclosed if needed. Show the functionality they probably want/need to use and allow the rest to be disclosed if needed. Make the stuff you show as powerful and general as possible and you may not need to hide much at all.
  3. Forgiveness. Make it hard to screw up (try to detect and prevent errors before they’re made), make it easy not to screw up (give useful feedback), and give people a way out if they screw up anyway (undo).
  4. Visibility. If you can’t see it, it might as well not be there. More advanced users will look in more places, so make the stuff idiots need to see bleeding obvious.
  5. Beauty & Simplicity. Ugliness is distracting. We don’t like ugly things for a reason, often “ugly” is shorthand for real problems — disease in organisms and inconsistency and carelessness in software. A consistent program is generally a tidy program and untidiness is the easiest form of ugliness to eradicate.
  6. Maximise Generality, Minimise Steps. These (often conflicting) goals are powerful tools for rethinking and improving an interface. If you can do more with less you’re almost certainly improving your UI. Improving generality (e.g. providing a dialog that does more things) is only good if it doesn’t increase steps and vice versa — that’s the key. (Imagine you could easily put all the Photoshop filters into a single dialog, but it would have a menu of all the filters in it … so you’ve created a very general dialog, but you haven’t saved any steps.
  7. Smart Defaults. When something needs to have a default value, try to pick that default intelligently (but make it easy to change). Defaulting to the user’s last choice is often a simple, effective option.
  8. User Errors are Crashes. If a user makes a mistake it’s equivalent to (and often more damaging than) a crash. Treat it like one.
  9. Avoid Preferences. Configuration choices are often a design failure. Is there a way to make this not an option?
  10. Wizards. These are generally a sign of design failure. Why isn’t it obvious how to do what it is the Wizard helps you do?
  11. Online Help. It ought to be good and largely unnecessary.

There you are, it goes up to 11 and Blender violates every single one. Perfect.

Vista, Continued

Today, I discovered that FireFox doesn’t have Flash installed. So I attempted (unsuccessfully) to install it. Automatic installation failed (FireFox’s fault). Manual installation failed (Adobe’s fault?). Note that Internet Explorer (rendered unusable by requiring me to type URLs with a leading http://) is running Flash just fine. I thought FireFox was too.

Anyway, so I quit FireFox and try to install Flash again. (I’ve clicked “Continue” or “Run” or whatever approximately 50x by this point.) Flash’s installer is “automatic” in that “you can’t fix it yourself” and sometimes manages to spawn hidden windows or, occasionally, to appear to disappear (have no visible presence on screen) and then reappear. Anyway, no Flash in FireFox.

So I launch FireFox and it tells me that it needs to wait for an install to complete, and I should restart. So I do.

Vista takes about 60s to shut down (heck, Tiger takes too long to shut down too) and then I try FireFox again. Same error message.

So I download a new copy of FireFox (more “Continue” “Run” “Yes I really really mean it” B.S.) and it produces a horrible error message saying that it could do something it needed to do. (Definitely blame FireFox.)

So I uninstall FireFox (it’s still more-or-less in the same place in the control panel) and attempt to install again.

Oops, when I clicked “Run” rather than “Save” Windows tossed away the installer. It’s probably there … somewhere … but easier to download a fresh copy (and “Save” it this time).

I run the new installer and … same error message.

So, I download Opera, which appears to work. (I’m typing this in Opera.) Then I download FireFox — which installs flawlessly — but still won’t run. It needs to allow a previous installation to complete.



I tried to make a movie (using SnagIt) of the wonderful sequence of dialogs you get when you attempt to do more-or-less anything in Vista but … get this … the “Cancel or Allow” system modal dialogs that dim the screen do not appear in screen captures.

Aside from anything else — I don’t think this is sinister, just incompetent — it means that if you want to create instructional videos for users you can’t show them what actually happens without jumping through a lot of hoops (e.g. filming your videos with a camcorder OR mocking up a “Cancel or Allow” dialog and editing your videos in a serious video editing app).

Maybe I just need a more bloody-minded screen capture program (e.g. fraps).


My laptop’s video adapter’s performance is absolutely abysmal (at least under Vista). Just how abysmal? Blender takes about one second to draw its splash screen (versus instantaneous on my near three year old iBook). Unity’s web plugin warns me that I don’t have any hardware 3d acceleration (um, supposedly the Quadro is roughly equivalent to a 7300 and far better than an Intel GMA 950). I noticed that the driver is written by Microsoft… Hmmm.

So I dutifully went to NVIDIA’s website to download their latest driver and install it. But their installer said I had no compatible hardware.

Double aaaargh.

Footnote: the Dell Latitude 620 I am using has 2GB of RAM, a Core Duo 2.0GHz, and an NVIDIA Quadro NVS 110M (64MB of dedicated RAM + shared). It should run a little slower than my wife’s MacBook Pro for everything except 3D (the MacBook has an X1600).

“Wow!” Microsoft has learned nothing about usability in twelve years

Ironically, this is the second time I’m writing this entry. The first attempt to write it involved using IE7 on my new Vista laptop. IE7 helpfully crashed on me losing everything I had written, so here goes attempt numero deux, this time using FireFox on Vista. (I also just downloaded Picasa using FireFox, since it was clicking the Picasa download link that crashed IE, and I wanted to give FireFox its fair chance to crash.)

Back in 1995 I was working as a “Usability Architect” and one of the things I would do was try to minimize keystrokes and clicks for users performing common tasks. Also around this time, Microsoft started pushing Windows (95 or 3.x, can’t remember) with an ad showing someone typing a copy command into DOS while announcing that now, with Windows, an operation that previously took dozens of keystrokes could be accomplished with a single click.

So, I counted the number of clicks required to perform this operation (using the “a double-click = 1.5 clicks” metric) and it turned out to be 47. More, in fact, than the number of keystrokes required to perform this same operation.

The reason I am reminded of this is the recent remarks made by some Microsoft apologists (although, surprisingly, not Paul Thurrott) arguing that Apple’s ad making fun of Vista’s permissions dialogs is unfair, since Mac OS X requires the user to type his/her password in the same situation.

Now let me just make this perfectly clear. I am using Vista for the first time today on a brand new Dell Latitude D620 (nice piece of hardware, by the way; no I didn’t pay for it so don’t tell me what I should have bought 😉 ), and Apple’s ads if anything understate just how dumb, annoying, and ineffectual Vista’s permissions dialogs are.

1) Unlike in the ad, the question isn’t always phrased the same way, and it’s not clear what the unsafe choice is. The ad’s annoying security guy is actually more usable and consistent than Vista’s permissions dialogs. E.g. sometimes you’re asked if you want to allow an action (e.g. when running a program), and sometimes you’re asked what to do (e.g. when downloading a file).

2) Unlike in the ad, sometimes you get asked to allow or deny something that isn’t clearly an action. E.g. when I was installing a piece of open source software (SciTE) which doesn’t have an installer, I got asked to confirm the actions of creating, naming, and selecting a folder in the “Program Files” directory.

Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of what happens when I create, rename, and then delete a folder (errrr directory) in “Program Files” under Vista:

I go into “Program Files” (which used to be harder to do!) and then right-click and pick “New | Folder”.
1) I am told that this action is denied. Would I like to “Continue” “Skip” or “Cancel”? I continue.
2) Windows needs my permission to continue (system modal!). “Continue” or “Cancel”. I continue.

I rename the folder “test”.
3) Denied. “Continue” “Skip” or “Cancel”. I continue.
4) Permission! “Continue” or “Cancel”. I continue.

And then to be tidy I select the folder and press DELETE.
5) Am I sure? “Yes” or “No”? Yes.
6) Denied. “Continue” “Skip” or “Cancel”. I continue.
7) Permission! “Continue” or “Cancel”. I continue.

So, to create and name a folder in “Program Files” I need to click through four confirmation dialogs.

And might I add that every single one of these dialogs still has the major usability issue that has plagued Windows since version … 1(?). When you create a dialog box to confirm an action — “delete” say — instead of asking “Yes” or “No” you should say “Delete” or “Keep File” (say) so that the user doesn’t have to read the dialog text every freaking time.

Might I add that I have absolutely no idea what happens if I continue and then cancel or skip. (Edit: actually I tried all the permutations and essentially “skip” and “cancel” have the same effect … so why have skip at all? Indeed, why have two dialogs to ask the same question … it’s like each dialog is produced by a different team somewhere in Microsoft. It’s exactly like that. Funny how a bunch of open source developers can provide a better integrated (and more secure) OS than Windows.)

I’ll probably go into more detail on just how badly Vista sucks usability-wise later, but here are some little chesnuts to keep you amused:

1) It appears that IE either won’t resolve web addresses unless you’ve typed in the full “http://…” or takes a random (long) time to do so.

2) A lot of dialogs make Windows modal before they appear. E.g. if you save a picture from IE the “Save” dialog (sheet?) doesn’t appear immediately, but the window immediately becomes non-responsive (without visually indicating anything). Lovely.

(Again, inobviously locked up windows, especially file browsers (“explorer” windows), have been a blight on Windows since Windows 95 when “multitasking” was introduced. Indeed Mac OS 7 through 9’s “inferior” cooperative multitasking Finder never had this problem.)

3) Microsoft still hasn’t learned to “ask before the long operation”. E.g. when I tried to run a Unity demo (requiring a custom ActiveX control) I get the yellow warning bar in IE, when I ask to install it there’s a long pause, then it asks me to “Continue or Cancel”, then another long pause and it asks if I want to install the plugin. Putting aside the fact that two of these questions didn’t need to be asked, they could all have been asked before downloading the file. The most egregious example of this, of course, is when you install Windows — but thankfully I didn’t have to install Vista on this laptop.

Anyway, a more “realistic” ad might go something like this:

The Mac guy talks, does stuff, and isn’t interrupted, but when he tries to throw his cell phone away he’s asked whether he’s sure and if he is, to provide a password.

The PC guy talks, does stuff, but before each action he is asked a series of differently phrased questions such as “Permission to say bad things about Vista is denied? Continue, Skip, or Cancel.” “Continue.” The lights go off, a spotlight shines in his face. “Saying bad things about Vista is dangerous. Continue or Cancel?” “Continue”. Next, he tries to perform a common operation (e.g. breathe) and is asked “You are attempting to breathe. Run or cancel. If you don’t want to have to confirm breathing in future, uncheck this box.” Nearly blue in the face, PC unchecks the box, and then is immediately asked “You are attempting to breathe. Run or cancel. If you don’t want to have to confirm breathing in future, uncheck this box.”

That’s right, unchecking that box doesn’t work.

“You are coming to a sad realization. Abort, Retry, or Fail.”


Let me just quickly say some nice things about Windows Vista.

1) Sleep mode actually appears to work. That’s right, I can close my laptop and it goes to sleep, and open it and it wakes up (into a PRESS CONTROL + ALT + DELETE to log in screen — why why why? Talk about dumb things that have been in Windows forever. It’s like wiring your house so that to turn on your lights you have to stick a fork in a power socket. At least it’s not “Start | Shut Down” any more, because the “Start” menu is the “shiny fake Aqua Windows button” now).

2) When you make changes to a directory they appear to more-or-less update automatically semi-instantly.

3) I like the way gadgets get a slab of the desktop to live in (versus the way Apple hides all your widgets in their own private Idaho).

4) Windows now has an Exposé rip-off! Sure, it’s ugly, less interactive, and less useful, but it’s there. Ugly because the “pseudo 3d overlapping fanned deck” layout isn’t very well done. Less interactive because when you point at a window it doesn’t tell you what app it belongs to. And less useful because it doesn’t appear to support drag and drop (but then drag and drop has always been barely half-assed in Windows). Once again Microsoft shows that when you rip off someone else’s ideas, it really helps to understand them.

Yes, these are back-handed compliments. What did you expect?

Eve Online

Eve’s been around for a while, but I’ve been doing something else (i.e. playing World of Warcraft) so I didn’t try it. I generally prefer “science fiction” flavored stuff over fantasy, but MMOs are in large part about sunken cost.

Eve Online is essentially multiplayer Elite (or, if you’re a Mac gamer, multiplayer Escape Velocity in 3D; if you’re under 30 it’s multiplayer Privateer), only with the fun part (dogfighting) removed and the other fun part (trading in slaves and illegal drugs) replaced with something resembling E-Trade. Actually, E-Trade is a lot more fun.

I won’t bother criticizing the back story (apparently some people are just genetically predisposed to liberal democracy) because EverQuest and World of Warcraft prove that a back story can be an uninspired kitchen sink of stolen cliches and the game can still be great. I will say that Eve Online’s back story is essentially fantasy (i.e. the past was great the present sucks) and not science fiction, and that it can only aspire to be an uninspired kitchen sink of stolen cliches.

When you start the game (about 1h after installing it and waiting for it to patch) you have two sets of choices to make: one is your character’s appearance, which can be customized by a pretty amazing set of options (e.g. you can narrow your gaze by increments, give your character a smile, snarl, or twisted leer), and some other stuff (e.g. professional background) that is — I’m told* — very important but for which you have no useful information. So basically, think of this as 200 questions of no consequence determining what your character’s icon will look like (all the 3d character stuff just generates an icon) mixed in with three questions of deep import written in a foreign language (“would you like your character to be a Mixlplk, a Jewwawwa, or a Flnobstrog?”). Good start.

Next, here’s a game with an in game tutorial that takes over three hours to complete. (It took me two sessions.) The user interface (including the interface for the tutorial) is terrible. As a simple example, the tutorial knows when you have completed a step but requires you to click “Done”. If you click “Done” too soon, it tells you to complete the step. D’uh. I haven’t seen this level of bad UI design since I stopped having to use Lotus Notes.

Oh and don’t get me started on left- vs. right- clicking. The tutorial constantly tells you that “when in doubt, right-click”. Guess what? Many crucial game objects only respond to “left-click and hold”. In general, the game uses three “noun verb” conventions: right-click and select from text context menu, left-click and hold (graphical content menu), left-click and click on some palette somewhere. These are all different and mutually incompatible, e.g. you can’t “open” a cargo pod by right-clicking it. You can’t “activate” a stargate by right-clicking it. Or maybe you can. Who knows?

The developers call the gameplay “open-ended”. No it’s not, it’s non-existent. Everything is automatic enough to be no fun, but manual enough to be tedious. E.g. to fly from point A to point B you need to click on point B (almost anywhere, e.g. even on a mission briefing) and then (in one of maybe twenty different ways) select “Set Destination” and engage autopilot. Your ship will then slowly head over there … unless it’s docked. You can’t start on a flight while docked. You need to click Undock and wait 30s first. (This is apparently too much for the Autopilots of the 53rd century.) Once your ship arrives, guess what? Your autopilot disengages somewhere inside the star system (not inside docking range), you need to click on your actual destination again and select “Dock”, and wait a few minutes. Congratulations, you’re Han Solo.

Combat is similarly thrilling. You see a red dot somewhere (e.g. in your “things in the vicinity list” or somewhere in space) and you click on it, then select “approach” or “orbit” and then click on a weapon. Then you wait and you either live or die. You can turn some stuff on and off if you get bored (e.g. your “shield booster” might slow your demise). Eventually, if you win, some cargo pods will appear. Click on one. Click Approach. Wait. Click on it again. Click Open. Open your ship (that’s manual of course). Drag loot into cargo hold. Woohoo, now that’s some flying!

Other folks have remarked on the thrills of space mining. Yes, you click on a rock, click approach, click your mining laser, open your cargo hold, and wait. Maybe your cargo hold fills, maybe you have to click another rock. Will you survive the excitement?

Oh and just so there’s no doubt about how not open-ended the gameplay is. You can play “we got fired from E-trade because we can’t design a GUI to save our lives” in space stations, and you can fly around in quasi-control of your ship in space. That’s the game play. You can’t walk to a cafe. You can’t land on a planet. You can’t board an enemy ship. You can’t get on someone else’s ship and man the guns while they fly. You can’t negotiate loan refinancing with a blaster in the cantina. Heck you can’t even book passage on someone else’s ship to go visit another star system.

You can gain skills while away from the game. In fact, you pretty much can play the game while AFK. Most of the things you do are so time-consuming, you probably want to buy a GameBoy DS or something to pass the time. My newbie character has 13,000 skill points (xp) and 120,000 ISK (gold pieces). So I want a new spaceship. I find one (selling several star systems away) for 30,000 ISK. Now, can I get this sucker … delivered? Nope, that wouldn’t be tedious enough. Instead I need to fly over there (see two paragraphs back for the roller-coaster thrill ride that will ensue) and pick up my ship. (I can assemble and disassemble it with a single mouse click… new interstellar frigate 24,000 ISK. Fedex… priceless.) When I get there I discover I need a new skill to pilot it. No problem it’s 4000 skill points. So I select the skill and click “Learn” or something and … well I logged off when I had absorbed 500 of the 4000 skill points. And then I uninstalled won the game!

Again, let me put this in context. If my level 10 warrior in WoW buys a new axe he may not be able to use it, but he can get it delivered. If the seller is in another town he might travel there, avoiding monsters (or killing them) on the way. He can go to the trainer and learn the basics of how to use the axe. If he doesn’t have enough money, he can go kill bandits and get some money. So he can use the axe but he sucks at it? He can go “practice” with it on rabbits, cows, and giant spiders. All of this is to some extent “fun”. Under no definition of “fun” will you find “wait six hours for a number to increment”. The “benefit” of being able to learn “Gollante Frigate 2” skill while not logged on pales beside the benefit of being able to win Eve Online while not having it installed on your hard disk.

It’s not surprising they can run 30,000 players on one server. This game is about as fast-paced and compelling as tic-tac-toe by email with a REALLY bad user interface.

Much has been said of the “gorgeous” graphics. Sure, like most MMOs, you can take some nice screenshots. I think the 3d artists have done a great job of creating 3d assets, and one day the programmers may get around to using them properly. E.g. when your ship accelerates, beams of light appear kind of where your engines are, maybe in front, maybe behind. Looks … stupid. Space is full of really neat mist. Stargates look like giant guns that “fire” stuff to distant star systems, but the problem is your ship doesn’t actually go into them. You go somewhere “near” them and then the stargate “fires” and your ship sits there for a bit and then fades away. The docking sequence is similarly brilliant … e.g. you dock with one of the pretty spiffy looking space stations by flying up to it (or through it — there’s no collision detection worth a damn) and then … the game seizes up and you reappear in space dock.

All of this for $20/month. Golly.

* You can win the game without knowing what the professions are. Just select “Unintall Eve Online” from Eve’s main menu… no wait that’s the Windows XP Start Menu. I get confused sometimes, but I should have realised it wasn’t Eve’s menu because it appeared instantly.

Return of the Newton

It’s been thirteen-or-so years since I got my first Newton. The PDA industry has still not produced a tool with a better interface for note-taking, tracking appointments, or making quick sketches. I’ve still never lost data in a Newton. (I’ve owned two iPaqs, both of which have died losing everything onboard on multiple occasions. That just isn’t cool. The fact that they’re useless pieces of junk for anything that a decent cellphone can’t do doesn’t help.)

So folks are buzzing about the imminent death of the iPod (my iPod died a couple of months back; it was its second trip through the washing machine that did it). I actually agree that everything is going to merge into the cellphone, and I hope that Apple will be the company that makes that cellphone. And I think they can do it. Anyone who can reduce the pocket/purse clutter we all live with and the number of things we can forget to take with us when we leave the house, or recharge when we’re at home, without losing functionality or convenice, has a winner on their hands.

Here are some things iPods do well:

  • Stores Data
  • Transfers Data to/from Computers
  • Navigates Large Lists
  • Plays Music
  • Runs a decent time on a single charge (unless playing video)

Here are some things iPods do less well:

  • Output audio to other devices (e.g. car stereos)
  • Output video to other devices (e.g. TV sets)
  • Transfers Data to/from other devices (e.g. cameras)
  • Allow you to view organizer data (appointments, contacts)
  • Record Audio
  • Watch Video

Here are some things iPods don’t do that you need to carry other crap around to do:

  • Make/Receive Cell Phone Calls
  • Make/Receive VoIP Phone Calls
  • Instant Message
  • Video Conference
  • Allow you to record organizer data (appointments, contacts)
  • Transfer Data to/from common data storage cards (e.g SD Cards)
  • Take Pictures
  • Take Notes
  • Draw Pictures

So imagine that Apple produces an iPod with a larger screen, bigger battery, solid state storage only (no hard disk), an SD card slot, a microphone, a small camera, and the the best pen-based UI ever developed (i.e. the Newton’s). It can basically be a Nano in a Video iPod case using the space previously used for the hard disk for more battery capacity.

All of a sudden they have a Newton (who cares if it’s really a Newton underneath, as long as it has the UI?) that they can actually sell.