Bob on Development

February 17, 2007

Seeing What your Users See: User Interfaces And Limited Choice

Filed under: Techniques,UI Design — Bob Grommes @ 11:18 am

Raymond Chen’s The Old New Thing is a must read for anyone creating software that interacts with users. Chen was one of the developers of Windows 95 and the surface reason his book is provocative and interesting is because it exposes a lot of the thinking behind the Windows UI and answers questions that bug people, such as “why do you press the Start button to stop the computer”?

The more compelling usefulness of the book, however, is Chen’s deep experience with how users respond to the user interface. I recently remarked about how a dialog box on the United Parcel Service web site probably is ignored by most users. Chen explains why. In the first chapter of his book, he has the following priceless mock dialog that shows what a user perceives when a dialog interrupts their work:

What a user sees when they read your dialogs.

Chen does not point this out to make fun of users. As he puts it, the problem is that “all the user wants to do is surf the web and send emails to their grandchildren.” The dialog is in the way of that, so it gets swatted away like an annoying fly.

This is a blow to the pride of many developers, who easily forget that their software is not the center of its user’s universe. It is simply a tool, a means to an end.

Developers throw up dialogs because it’s generally easier to let users make decisions than to figure out what needs to be done at a given moment. It is also easier than designing software that is forgiving, resourceful and resilient.

In my original story, I explained that if a UPS shipper specifies a shipment value over some threshold amount, a dialog appears explaining in some detail that because of the shipment’s high value they must obtain an acceptance signature for the shipment from an actual UPS employee. If the shipper doesn’t do this, any loss claims will be invalid. I opined that most users will never register this info, will swat the dialog aside, and buy worthless insurance.

How might this have been better implemented? I would have put it right in the workflow of the wizard that was managing the shipment, rather than interrupt with a notification and an OK button. Then I would give them the choice of reducing the valuation, requesting a pickup, or locating a company store to drop off at — all without losing the context of what they are working on, mysteriously completing the shipment, or otherwise doing anything unexpected. In this case, I’d require more decisions from the user, because it’s the only way to insure they are not just throwing money down a hole.

In most cases, though, it’s better to take some reasonable default action and say nothing at all. For example, usually if a users closes an open document without saving, they meant to save the changes up to that point, so at the very least, the default choice, if you present one at all, should be to save the changes. Instead what we see in most applications is a dangerous default such as not saving changes, or backwards questions that ask if you want to discard changes rather than keep them. Remember, the user isn’t really reading this, so if they just hit the Enter key you probably should err on the side of caution, and not risk throwing away the last forty minutes of work.

Come to think of it, this is why auto save features were probably born; I have long been in the habit of saving my work every minute or two but not all users have that healthy paranoia; a configurable auto-save feature, turned on by default, does that for them.

Users usually don’t want all the nifty choices we think to offer them. Often, these choices cause more harm than good. They should be absent, or hidden behind some kind of “expert” mode.

Think through the features in your user interaction and make them as free of “friction” and fluff and endless choices as you can. Let the user get the critical path of their work done with ease. Save your “interruption capital” for those times when there is something the user truly neeeds to stop and make a decision about … a decision that matters to the user.


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