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Only a year ago, I was against infinite scroll. In design meetings, I’d point out the way it breaks various aspects of the scroll bar. (You can’t tell how far through the full data-set you are; dragging the “thumb” down causes it to suddenly change place, etc.)

But now, I almost expect it when I’m scrolling through certain types of web pages. It’s slightly disorienting to me when I bump into the bottom of a page and have to manually click “next” or whatever.

What happened? In a word: New Twitter.

Okay, it’s not really “new” Twitter any more (it was rolled out from September through October of 2010 — less than a year ago, but those 9 months are an eternity in Internet time). But still, that roll-out was the impetus for my change in opinion. Twitter, a site I use every day, changed its UI and started doing infinite scroll. And now that interaction is a part of my daily life, and somewhere along the way, I got used to it. And now I expect it, at least in certain cases.

And it’s because one site changed its interface. And because that one site is one I use many times every day.

Logically speaking, there’s no reason why I should expect, for example, Google’s search results or my Dreamwidth reading page or TechCrunch’s front page to behave like Twitter does. One site’s UI shouldn’t — and doesn’t — have a damn thing to do with any other site. But the things we use frequently shape our habits, and that includes habits of thought.

As a side effect of my having gotten used to Twitter’s infinite scroll, I’ve gotten far less inclined to check the position of the scroll-bar “thumb” to see how far through the page I am… except on the kinds of pages that I expect to not have infinite scroll. For example, an article or story has a natural end, and it just makes sense for a calendar to be paginated.

But blogs? Or search results? Or anything that doesn’t have a natural break-point in it? There’s no reason why these things should require me to find the “load more” link. And there’s really no reason why that link should load stuff in a whole new page. Dynamic pagination with URL parameters like “?skip=40″ was always a kind of awkward idea; it’s just that there didn’t used to be anything better. But now there is.

Right? I mean, that really is the case, isn’t it? I don’t just think so because one of the sites I use every day has retrained the way I think… right?

Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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When should you ask a user “Are you sure you want to do that?” Bear in mind that asking this question when you don’t have to has more than one bad effect:

  1. Obviously, it wastes the user’s time and may even annoy them.
  2. It also contributes to the general problem of “too damned many dialog boxes in computing”. This is subtly but importantly different from the previous point: It trains the user to unthinkingly click the default option in any dialog box, just to keep it from wasting their time.
  3. Finally, it may actually hinder the user’s ability to leave your program. Look at this page by Joel Spolsky, and search for “exit Juno”. A user thought the “Are you sure you want to exit?” dialog meant that the computer was advising her that there were ill effects from doing so.

Okay, that last one seems like sort of an edge case, right? But even the first two items are enough reason to pay attention to when you should — and shouldn’t — ask the user to confirm something.

My proposal: Only ask a user for confirmation when the action was initiated by a single click or keystroke, and it has some kind of bad effects. Yes, this means that any time you ask someone to confirm whether they want to exit your program, and they have already saved all their work, you just wasted their time. This one’s particularly prevalent in the gaming world, I’ve noticed: Even if you’re in between games, and your scores are all saved — meaning the worst possible consequence of exiting the game is that you’ll have to start the application again — most games will show you a “Do you really want to exit Game Name?” dialog anyway.

MS Word gets this exactly right. If your document hasn’t been changed since the last time you saved it, then exiting the program has no ill effects. If you click the little X, or press Alt+F4, MS Word won’t even bother to ask you “Are you sure?”; it’ll just exit with no muss and no fuss. It’s only if you have some unsaved work that you’ll see the “Do you want to save your changes?” dialog. And if your document already has a filename, Word doesn’t bother to prompt you for a new one; you only get the “Save As…” dialog if the document doesn’t yet have a filename.

The program only bothers the user if it has to; if it can figure things out on its own, it does. Just the way it should be.

If you’re writing another application — I don’t care whether it’s whether it’s a web application, Rich Internet Application, desktop application, or smartphone application — please take a hint from the way MS Word handles confirmation questions. Don’t make your app be the software equivalent of “that guy”.

Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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A few nights ago, my Palm Prē got dropped, causing a hairline fracture in the touch-screen. Since it would no longer take any screen input, it was suddenly an even less useful device than usual. I’d been thinking of switching to an Android phone anyway, so I am now the (proud?) owner of a shiny, new Samsung Epic 4G (one of their Galaxy S line).

Getting used to it has occupied a fair bit of my time, but here are a few early impressions. Obviously, some of these are impressions of the Android OS, and others are about the phone’s hardware.

  • The Android calendar will let me set alarms anywhere from 1-99 units in advance of events, where the units can be minutes, hours, days, or even weeks. This actually beats what the old PalmOS used to let me do (and the webOS replaced by a simple drop-down of 5, 10, 15, and 30 minutes, 1 hour, and 1 day — not very useful; sometimes I want 3 hours’ warning).
  • The Epic is a much bigger, chunkier device than the Prē was. It still fits in my pants pocket, but not so smoothly. Not only is it just plain larger than the Prē, it also has less-rounded corners. Also, the protective case I got for the Epic is the rubberized kind, noticeably thicker than the “invisible skin” I had on my Prē.
  • What’s with the battery gauge not giving an actual percent? That seems so… naff. I’ve found a nice app to give me usable information: Modded Logic’s Battery Status Bar.
  • Live Wallpaper is cool as anything. It also seems to eat batteries like a very hungry thing. I’m still trying to decide if it’s worth it or not.
  • Read the rest of this entry »

    Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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One of the biggest problems with Flash isn’t Flash itself. It’s Flash designers. More particularly, it’s Flash designers’ basic failure to understand why certain UI elements are the way they are. This leads to one of the most common Flash designer diseases: The drive to reinvent basic UI elements. Poorly.

Page Transitions

When a user clicks a link, they’re sending a specific message with a specific intent. That intent is “show me the information I’m interested in”. It’s not “show me a nifty animation effect that takes another 5 seconds out of my busy schedule”.

Users (rightly) consider page transitions to be the space in between what they’re actually interested in. Don’t force them to pay even more attention to them.

Reinventing Scroll Bars

This error is so common, and people screw it up so badly, that I’ve already written an entire post about it. However, I’d be remiss in not listing it here, as well.

Auto-Playing Sound

Speaking of things I’ve written about before… people have been complaining about auto-playing sound since Netscape Navigator first gave us the ability to include such an abomination, way back around 1994. Eleven years later, I listed auto-playing music as a “no-brainer”, in the sense that excluding it from your site should be a no-brainer decision.

Some people will apparently never learn.

Assuming Everyone Has Enormous Bandwidth

Yes, broadband is much more common in the United States now than it used to be. That means that people are less ready to wait a long time for your page to load, not more. And a designer, developer, or other professional who understands how HTML, CSS, and JavaScript work can arrange things so that at least part of the page (or AJAXified web app, or whatever) is usable when only part of the code has arrived at the user’s browser.

If it’s possible to provide the user with something more useful than a “Loading…” indicator before all the code has arrived, then why do Flash developers never actually do so? (This is a real, not rhetorical, questions, and an open invitation for Flash designers and developers to answer it.)

Here’s Why So Many People Disparage Flash “Designers”

For a trifecta of awfulness, check out the site for Alembic, a bar in San Francisco. On my fiber-optic, 6 Mbit connection, it takes nearly 10 seconds just for the site’s intro to load. Then, once the little rocks glass is full of liquor, the page blasts some sound at me — sound that doesn’t even convey any information. (Believe it or not, I already know what a crowded bar sounds like.)

Then there are the slow transitions from sub-page to sub-page. All told, it took me a ridiculous amount of time just to find out what their hours were. But for a true dose of awfulness, try clicking on “Menus”. Then try clicking on one of the other main menu items. The site’s “background” doesn’t even realize that there’s still a “window” open in front of it… even though both the “background” and the “popup” are just visual elements of the same Flash object!

The real kicker comes when you try clicking on one of the menu pages. Rolling over zooms them a bit, but clicking? Launches a PDF document! A separate one for each page! That zoom effect was apparently just a red herring, and trying to get the place’s full menu would require seven separate PDF downloads.

I suppose they could, somehow, have disrespected their users a little more. At least the page doesn’t literally throw a drink in the user’s face. Just figuratively.

Please, if you’re designing your sites in Flash, don’t make them like this. Don’t be the web equivalent of “that guy”.

Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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Okay, so I’m a little late to the party in posting this. All the professional bloggers have already written about it, while I’ve been busy with my day job. Nonetheless, something that’s been on my mind since the beginning of the week, when it would have been timely:

I think Facebook has now hit its “cap”. People who don’t yet have Facebook accounts now seem to be saying, “I ain’t gettin’ one now!” Others who do have accounts are finally abandoning them. And I’m one of those abandoners.

I have a little bit of interest in the Disapora* Project, but I don’t think it will really take off. On the other hand, in a recent New York Times article about the project, both its staffers and backers have some things to say about just how quickly they managed to raise funding — and all of those things point to a very clear demand for an alternative to Facebook.

Facebook Co-Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has lately been saying that privacy is no longer a social norm, but lots of people don’t accept this. In fact, many of us think that Zuckerberg is saying such things in the hope of making them come true, rather than as observations of something that’s already come to pass.

Read the rest of this entry »

Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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I’ve written before about augmented reality, Sixth Sense, and so on. Here’s a question: Is this really augmentation? As augmented reality takes hold, we’ll have more and more people wandering around looking at their smartphones’ screens rather than what’s actually in front of them. The smartphone delivers some extra information, of course, but it imposes a cost, too: the information takes a while to arrive; it takes attention to process; focusing on the screen means sacrificing practically all your peripheral vision…

It’s a trade-off, and I’m probably missing some aspects of it. What I’m wondering about, simply, is whether the trade is a net gain or a net loss.

Another way to put this — in harshly evolutionary terms, in fact — is: If someone with augmented reality and someone without it were competing for some life-or-death resource, who would win?

Read the rest of this entry »

Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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Right now, the question of what you need in a mobile computing platform is most often phrased in terms of “Do you need a netbook or a full laptop? Or perhaps one of the new high-end smartphones will manage?” I think the question isn’t one of capabilities as much as it is a question about how we access those capabilities.

For some people, the iPhone’s lack of a physical keyboard is a deal-breaker. For me, the smaller-than-standard keyboard on the average netbook is a powerful disincentive: If I had to use one, it would slow down my interaction with the netbook — and if I learned to be fluent and productive with the small keyboard, it might mess up my muscle memory for dealing with full-size keyboards on my “real” computers. It’s not a trade-off I’m willing to make.

The Palm Prē’s physical keyboard is tiny. I can only key it with my thumbs, and there’s no risk of interference with my pre-existing keyboarding skills. Inputting data with it is achingly slow, but offset by the device’s wonderful portability (it fits into a pocket even easier than an iPhone does). But I can’t really edit text with it, because there’s no D-pad to do precise cursor positioning with. Even the Orange+finger-movement trick is balky and awkward, in my experience; if I want to correct a single-letter typo, getting the cursor after the incorrect character so I can backspace and correct it is such an ordeal, it’s often quicker and easier for me to use Shift+Backspace to delete the entire word and then retype the whole thing.

In effect, even though the phone has the ability to edit text, the interface makes it so difficult that I can’t use the capability. It might as well not be there. What would a better interface mechanism look like?

Read the rest of this entry »

Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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Different people use applications in different ways. Sounds simple and obvious, but how often do you look at the real implications of it? Just to take a simple example, let’s suppose you’re using Windows (pretty much any recent version), and you want to perform a simple task: Exit the active application. How many different ways might a user do that?

  1. Alt, F, X (that is, “tap the Alt key and release it, then hit F, then X”)
  2. Alt+F, X (i.e., “hold Alt while pressing F, then release both and press X”)
  3. Alt+F4
  4. Alt+F, up-arrow, Enter
  5. mouse-click on “File”, move down and mouse-click on “Exit”
  6. mouse-click the top-right corner “x” button
  7. in some apps: Ctrl+Q (this is particularly likely if the user has just migrated over from the Mac world, or often has to switch back and forth)

Seven different ways of doing this simple action. I could come up with similar lists for “save the active document”, “copy and paste some text”, and other common actions. Note that Save, Cut, Copy, and Paste are often found on toolbars, unlike Exit, so that makes another way-of-doing-it that’s not on the previous list.

If you want your application to be perceived as “intuitive” or “user-friendly” by all of your users, rather than just a narrow range, make sure that the first thing the user tries works just like they expected.

Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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If you’re going to reinvent the wheel, you should at least make sure your new version is somehow better than the previous kind. Reimplementing standard UI and OS widgets is one of the most common ways developers reinvent the wheel these days — it started with Flash developers building their own controls, and has now spread to Adobe AIR and Silverlight.

It might be a welcome trend, if the replacement widgets people were building had more functionality than the OS-native ones that are available for free in any other context. But usually, the widgets I see in these frameworks have less than half the functionality of the things they try to replace. I’m going to pick on scroll bars for now, because I’ve seen them horribly mangled too many times.

To start with one aspect of scroll bars that we often take for granted: Can you guess which of these text boxes contains more text?




Read the rest of this entry »

Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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For backward-compatibility testing, I’ve just installed a few versions of WordPress ranging back to version 2.0. It’s kind of fascinating to see a sort of fast-rewind retrospective of the software. Even just looking at the installation experience, it’s like watching HAL 9000 descend into childish incoherence as Dave Bowman yanks his memory chips.

By the time you get back to WordPress 2.0 and try hitting the blog installation directory in your web browser, all you get is a plain, unstyled page that says:

It doesn’t look like you’ve installed WP yet. Try running install.php.

The funny thing is, that page works just fine. You click the link, it takes you to install.php, and… that’s really just a splash page, which talks about what you’re going to do, and requires that you click on a big link that says “First Step” in order to proceed. So, while it does “work”, it does so at the expense of making the user click the mouse twice, unnecessarily.

In the past 4 years, the WordPress team has made the install process look sleeker and more styled. But I think the real improvement in user experience isn’t the visuals — it’s the removal of those two unnecesary, time-wasting mouse clicks.

Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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The more I play with OpenOffice.org’s Writer, the more confused I am by some of the odd UI/UX warts in it. Here are the ones that are on my mind this morning:

  • When I press F11 to bring up the Style Picker list, why does typing letters not navigate me through that list? Why do I have to use the down-arrow to navigate to “Heading 1″, rather than just typing “he” and then Enter?
  • Once I do hit Enter to apply the style I’ve chosen, why does the picker window remain open even though my cursor focus has returned to the document? This is the worst of both worlds: part of the document I’m working with is obscured by the picker window, and now I have to hit F11 twice in order to apply another style. If the window went away, I could just hit F11 once to bring it up the next time I wanted to apply a style.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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Note, Added A Few Days Later: This post does not tell the whole story. This is a wail of anguish, and is not intended to be balanced. For a more balanced look at the Palm Prē, read my later, and broader, evaluation of it as well as this post.


There are a lot of good things about the Prē, but right now, they’re almost all being overshadowed by the catastrophic mistake the webOS developers made with the Memo Pad and Task List. They appear to have been swayed by the general Google-based philosophy that “If you’ve got really good search, you don’t need any internal structure or divisions.”

This idea is completely wrong.

Not allowing me to divide things into categories and subcategories is a painful thing. The excuse that “you can find anything you want, just by searching”, misses the point that I don’t always want to search at all — sometimes I want to browse.

Sometimes, I don’t want to select a single item. Instead, I want to see which items are available. Dividing things into categories is also an exploration of the ways that things are connected to one another. Allowing access only by searching demolishes those interconnections.

The only thing that’s more wrong than denying the user the ability to sort things into categories from the beginning, as Gmail does, is to take away the categories a user has already set up. And that’s what the Memo Pad and Task List in webOS did with my imported data from PalmOS.

I used to have 237 memos, sorted into 11 different categories that relate to various hobbies and interests, projects I’m working on, my girlfriend, and so on. And within each category, memos were automatically sorted alphabetically by title. And I had 50 To-Do items arranged in 11 other categories, these ranging from locations (i.e., “things that can only be done at home”) to types of shopping trip (e.g., “things to pick up at the supermarket” vs. “things to pick up at Fry’s”).

These internal divisions are now completely gone. My 237 memos are now arranged in the order they were created in, which is absolutely useless to me. I can, apparently, assign each memo one of four colors, and I can drag them to reorder them, but I’d still be stuck trying to deal with a list of 237 items, where previously no category had more than about 2 dozen. This is the difference between a manageable list, and one that is completely unmanageable.

(As you might guess, I also had a bunch of categories in my Date Book — only 10, as it turns out. But categories aren’t quite as indispensable there, because a calendar app has a natural way of organizing data that’s more primary. Months and weeks even subdivide time for you automatically. So while I sorely miss the categories in my Date Book, their lack isn’t a complete, crippling, deal-breaker.)

To add to the difficulty of a 237-item list, webOS doesn’t seem to have scrollbars. The content will scroll just fine, but there’s nothing to indicate where you are in the list. Are you right at the top? Halfway through? There is no way to know. There is also no way to go quickly or easily from one end to the other; you have to laboriously traverse all the territory in between.

Confronted with such a nightmare, my first thought is, “What if I just throw away all my old memos and start fresh?” Admittedly, there is some cruft in there. (In fact, I do occasionally archive stale memos to my computer’s hard drive and then delete them. It could be worse; it’s not like I’ve kept everything.)

The mere fact that I’m considering nuking all my old data, just because the new system can’t handle it, is a tragedy of poor software design and backward incompatibility. But honestly, even that wouldn’t really help:

The very nature of the new memo pad means that it cannot handle very many memos before it becomes unwieldy. With no scroll bar and no way to filter the view, the user is forced to confront all of the information that’s present, instead of having any way of interacting with a reasonable subset of it.

Once there are more than, say, three or four dozen memos in the new memo-pad system, it will be unusable again.

And this means I’m going to have to find a new way to organize my stuff. My notes. My thoughts. My ways of remembering stuff when I’m on the go.

Maybe Palm will eventually put categories back in. I dearly hope so, because their lack is a calamity for me. But by the time they do such a thing, I’ll probably have found some completely new way to keep myself organized.

I am very upset right now. And this has all just been about one particular problem; it’s not like the Prē doesn’t have some other flaws. (The lack of a D-pad is pretty annoying.)

It has some nice features, and I really ought to write about them at some point, just for balance. But right now, confronting the complete breakdown of my organizational system, it’s hard for me to see any of the good stuff that lies beyond.

Edited to Add: It seems the To-Do List or Task List app actually does have a feature that effectively allows a single-level category grouping. It’s just somewhat easy to overlook at first. The Calendar will color-code items based on their source — for example, all items derived from Google Calendar might be blue, while ones from MS Exchange might be red. I think this is silly; I’d rather have, for example, parties in red, work tasks in blue, social appointments in green, and what-have-you.

Right now, all my items are green, indicating that they all came from the same source. I really hope later ones don’t pick up some other color; I’d rather have no categorization than color-coding that doesn’t match my thoughts and that I can’t turn off.

Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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I’m at a one-week contract this week, and the client uses only Macs. So I’m using an unfamiliar Mac keyboard — the kind with the transparent plastic casing, and the really stiff keys (by my standards, anyway).

I am starting to get used to the propeller key already, and getting sort of used to using Meta-K instead of my usual Meta-E to access the search bar/field in Firefox. But one nice thing…

Because of the weird keyboard, I’m hoping that I can avoid transferring these habits back to my normal, PC-keyboard typing. Maybe I’ll be able to turn this drawback into a minor advantage. (Which would be nice, because reaching for the propeller key on my home computer would be seriously annoying to me.)

Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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I found an interesting UI problem today, on a site that I will be kind enough not to actually link to. Instead, I’ll just reproduce the general concept and problem here:



The links all just link straight to the nav bar itself, so if you scroll your browser view so that the list isn’t right at the top, you’ll be able to tell when you’ve clicked one of the links. See what happens?

You roll over one of the list items, and you get an immediate visual reaction: not only does the background change color, but the mouse cursor even becomes a pointer. It’s not just suggesting that your cursor is over a clickable item; it’s flat-out asserting that to be the case.

And it’s lying.

The clickable area is nothing but the text in the very center of the nav bar item, and the only feedback you’ll get when you hover over that is the destination URL appearing in your browser’s status bar — if you have that turned on; many browsers leave the status bar off by default.

I’m fairly sure the people at Anonycorp didn’t mean to do this. I think it was just an ill-considered (and poorly QA-ed!) mistake in choosing which CSS rules to apply on which elements. But it’s a horrible, cruel UI trick to play on your visitors and users. Don’t do this.

Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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