Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The iPad, the user and the design in between them

OK, one more post about iPads/tablets/e-readers and user interfaces, and then I will get back to actual Aggie-related journalism news, of which I have quite the backlog.

First, Adobe and Wired have rolled out a digital magazine prototype that works across multiple platforms, which is what I was hoping for in my last post. Here's a video:

And the need for an intuitive interface is underlined by a fairly unbelievable occurrence in the past few days. Friday, a blog called ReadWriteWeb posted an entry about logging into Facebook that wound up, for some period of time, being one of the top five search results if you Googled "facebook login." Literally hundreds of people went to this blog post instead of to Facebook.com, tried to log in to Facebook and then posted angry comments on the blog saying they didn't like the way Facebook had been redesigned because it was too hard to log in.

I went to that blog and read over the comments and am satisfied it's not a joke. Some several hundred people literally thought it was Facebook despite it not being called Facebook and not being at Facebook.com, and were unable to log in but perfectly able to leave angry comments saying how stupid Facebook was.

Lots of folks have had great fun mocking this, of course; others are simply worried about the future of humanity. However, a really thoughtful, elegant mea culpa comes from a designer/developer named Ed Finkler at Funkatron.com, who begins also by talking about the iPad user interface. Here's an excerpt of my favorite parts:

  • How is it the fault of the users when we present them with multiple, barely-differentiated text fields within the same window. Is it really surprising that they don’t understand the differences between each? And is it surprising that they choose to use the one which works with more natural language, rather than entering syntactically-unnatural domain names?

  • There is LOADS of anecdotal evidence that most users simply use search engines as a sort of natural language CLI. Shouldn’t we be designing interfaces that work in the way most natural for the majority of users?

These people have better things to do with their days than tweaking out the spacing in their browser toolbars. A computer for them is a utility. One that is increasingly complex, and one that is used because it’s the only option for accomplishing certain things – not because it’s a good option.

It’s kind of like the Photoshop Problem: when people want to crop a picture, we give them Photoshop. Photoshop is a behemoth application with nearly every image editing and touchup function imaginable, and it is terribly complex.


When folks need an elevator, we should give them an elevator, not an airplane. We’ve been giving them airplanes for 30 years, and then laughing at them for being too stupid to fly them right.


I certainly don’t think that the computer can become (anytime soon) a magic box that determines our whims, nor do I think that people shouldn’t have to learn some things.

What I do think is that the current interface modern OSes on computers provide is simply overwhelming for most users, to the point that it’s very challenging to learn how to accomplish tasks without a very significant investment of time. Driving would be a good example of a task that does require investment of time, but is not so overwhelming that the vast majority of people fundamentally get it wrong: you don’t see people steering with their feet, or accelerating and braking with the radio. I’d argue that modern computer interfaces, in a rush to offer flexibility and capability, make it possible to steer with your hands, feet, teeth, and knees — and don’t make it particularly clear which one is best.