UI Missteps: Form over Function

Don’t get me wrong. The people at MacUpdate usually do a great job of managing and taking user feedback. But even with their careful curation of Mac & iOS apps that receive updates (sometimes numbering close to 100 OS X apps alone in one day), things slip through the cracks. I wasted about 5 minutes trying to figure out why an updated app was not available via one-click update using the built in software updater nor MacUpdate’s Desktop app. After going to MacUpdate, it was only by reading the comment and then hovering above the download link that the answer was clear: the app was a beta, and using the built-in update tools both within the native app & the MacUpdate Desktop App wouldn’t work. Even though I have “show beta/pre-release” unchecked, it still showed up in the MacUpdate Desktop list.

I realized the problem when looking at the comment and the confusion about version numbers used and how Adobe doesn’t distinguish betas with “b” or “(beta).” Then I took a few minutes to write this. The focus is not what MacUpdate did — it is an edge case which reflects more poorly on Adobe. Instead it is a example of what UI designers everywhere are doing to the detriment of both advanced and novice users everywhere.

Making Simplicity Difficult (Form Over Function)

If you accept that the purpose of computers is to make tasks easier to accomplish than doing them without them, then what follows is logical. When the interface gets so polished the labels are rubbed off, advanced features are hidden or removed, and labels are replaced unlabeled/undocumented icons, it leads to problems using an application no matter what type of device the application runs on. Here is my brief comment on that.

I don’t mind clean, nice-looking interface (I strive to balance aesthetics with easy-to-access, powerful features), but don’t let streamlined designs actually slow productivity; whether that productivity is actually getting work done or doing administrative tasks such as updating your software.

This confusion is a clear case of form over function, which is the wrong direction (unless you’re selling soda or commodities…) for computing interfaces to head because it handicaps learning via obscuring helpful, orientating/navigating details and slows advanced users.

If the trend in UIs were to spill over in the real word, we would see street signs replaced with pictures of maps and street addresses removed from the front, and instead only inside each building. Menus boards would have descriptions and prices hidden, until a person opened a flap to read the price and description.

In houses rather than work aesthetics around function, some streamlined houses would only have one control panel that controlled all the lighting, heating, etc. but that panel would be fixed next to the circuit breaker box. If a house had individual light switches, they’d be placed at whim of a designer who never lived or had even been in a house. Some would be oriented at any angle the designer liked and on any surface — some nowhere near the door or on one or both sides of the door. Some switches would glow only when they were off, and not when they are on, and vice versa which is actually happening with electronic switches. All building layouts would depend on the whim of a designer that had no concept of architectural design patterns nor a care about the building’s function.

This current trend toward “flatness” that was a backlash against “skeuomorphic” design of last generation all dance around the real point of GUIs: to make things easier by giving feedback to users that allows them to assess both current application state and orient where they are in the system. The trend is stripping away both of these, making things harder to use, not easier. Sadly, people think simplifying the interface will help users whose learning is being retarded by confusing inconsistent and low-feedback designs. This over-simplification is in fact hurting more than helping. This is because simple is not necessarily a synonym for easy. (Easy things are simple, but simple things are not always easy oddly enough.) Product managers and designers think people want simple, when they really want easy. Making things easy should be the focus. The easier a more complex the task is, the more useful your software.

Making Complexity Easy (Form Follows Function)

Designers should look for the frustrating points and the complex points and make complex tasks as easy as possible — which means removing steps if it can be done without making the user’s knowledge have to ramp up greater than the complex steps.

This is my Menubar. This is easy:

menubar

It is very dense with information. By looking at it you can see with a glance that Bluetooth is on, I’m connected to the network with light traffic, my processor load, my sound volume, the day & date, my current battery level (full) & that I am plugged in, the time, the moon phase, the CPU temperature & CPU voltage draw. I could have the default OS X menubar, but then I wouldn’t be able to see this without opening applications, slowing me down. I often refer to network speeds and CPU load when something seems bogged down. I often check the date and time, and that calendat icon pulls down so I can see my schedule in Fantastical without opening the Calendar App. The functionality is available if I pull down my sound menu is Audio Switcher.

audio-switcher

All these save me time each use. The march of Menu Items and GUI Enhancements I use all take a complex array of data, navigation, and bother of doing complex things and make some of them a click or less away. While this might be ugly to some, it is not distracting and works well. This is my current balance point, but with each stripping down towards “simplicity,” this ease becomes more difficult. Thankfully the developers of iStat Menus, Fantastical, Bartender, Audio Switcher, Moom, TotalFinder, Default Folder X, Alfred and PopCar (among others) see the problem that streamlined interfaces bring. But rather than strip away information, they strive to arrange information in a way that is not overwhelming and give user configurable interfaces to really harness the power of a GUI. These companies (while not all perfect — some have fallen into this hole at least slightly) have UI designers, not artists making flat colorful mystery icons with unpredictable UIs that confuse people calling themselves UX designers.

(I think of myself more as a User/Communication Efficiency type of person, so while the “UX Designer” title sounds fancy, I’d rather be a “User Interface Communication Efficiency Designer” to put the emphasis not of the “experience” of using a product, but on the efficient use of communications media available. Plus, UICED sounds like a term that could be played with. But titles are kind of limiting in a way… so I’ll just be myself. When people ask me my title, I just sum it up to say “IT Consultant” since whenever I actually start to talk tech I notice most people’s eyes glaze over.)

I try to focus on what matters to get work done, so I can get work done with less effort and faster. Anything that gets hinders more than helps my efforts falls out of use. BTW, if you are not familiar with these products, many are mentioned and linked on my Recommended Apps page. You can also check out MacUpdate.com and see the trove of software — most at least decent — that they list. They are good guys, so if you see errors, write them and be nice please. They will get back to you if needed with a personally written reply, which is always worth a star in my book. “When I was a kid several days of Mac SW updates could fit on one page… now several pages might span one day.”

Thanks for reading.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s