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.

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Almost Everything I learned about Teamwork and Leadership, I Learned in Clan Lord

I’ve been threatening to write this post for about a year. I had this sitting on the back-burner for a month and asked for comments from another player also in the IT Admin field. So, without further ado…

Despite the Graphics, CL has real team-building potential

Despite the Graphics, CL has real team-building potential

For the unwashed, Clan Lord is an archaic, sorely out-of-date Multi-player Online Role-playing Game  (MORPG) that has been running since the late 90s. The single world (server) and small population make it feel like a small town, thus all of the current players have the same goal (job). Thus, like any small group with common goals, it is a bit like a company: You have your people in it who are on the ball because they work well in teams and independently, those that only work in teams because they need direction, those that lead group of people in a direction, those that specialize in a subset of knowledge about the terrain (market or technology) all of whom trade their time and risk profit (experience) to advance, and finally those that just show up to have fun. These flyby ‘fun’ people are equivalent to the people who just show up for a paycheck. In the game, one seemingly minor mistake can lead to the death of the entire group.  This necessitates departing (experience and time loss) which is a bit like working on a project  and having it fail miserable because Joe Paycheck didn’t know or care that you shouldn’t have done X.

Considering the parallels I noticed about the in game group and the group of people you work with  day-to-day, I have found several commonalities that I have taken from work to game and from game to work that have helped me navigate real life teamwork, leadership and relationships.

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Developing Web Sites on OS X Faster & Easier

I often get asked what I use to develop web pages and other types of documents on OS X. Sometimes it is from new users, who have switched from a Windows environment who genuinely want advice. Sometimes it is a loaded question from a developer with a Windows bias and outdated information who thinks that developing on OS X is more difficult and clunky compared to Windows (or Linux). In some cases it is (such as if you are trying to develop for a Windows .NET system) because OS X is a Unix derivative, Windows’ naming schemes (such as the path separator and old text encoding) makes it a pain. However, for apache development, most web libraries and applications simply need to be configured and installed for OS X’s flavor of unix to work. Many offer native precompiled apps. At one point setting up a basic Web Server in OS X was a simple matter of dropping files in /{username}/Sites/ and going to System Preferences>Sharing>{selecting} Web Server. However, because Apple now confuses simplicity with ease [1. a subject I comment on from time to time.]— it has followed a trend of removing a lot of the convenience features for starting standard unix services such, from the default install of OS X. Now, things are less straight forward for developers who just want to toss up a quick php server to develop locally, and some people now need help setting this stuff up, and would rather not have to learn the terminal commands. Others, like me, know the terminal all too well, but are tired of having to edit file after file (taking care not to make a single mistake) and restart services when throwing a few switches and typing a few lines in the terminal is so much faster and practically immune to error.
No matter what your angle is, I get asked often enough how to get started or what I use, that I have decided to write it down so I can point people to this article. While not exhaustive (I do not have unlimited funds to try every IDE, or app that increase productivity), this is what I currently use. For the most part I like it, but try to avoid being too biased because I realize everyone has different needs and different preferences on how things should work. So, as usual: YMMV.

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CleanMyMac 2: Not Just for Newer Users

CleanMyMac2 Icon

CleanMyMac2: Looks as good as it cleans

Bottom Line (TL;DR) MacPaw’s CleanMyMac2 is a fast and easy Mac cleanup utility that even advanced users will find a few features that save them tons of time. You could do a lot of the stuff that CleanMyMac2 does manually, but then you would have much less time to do other things, like actually being productive. Yes: I would recommend it to pretty much anyone.

“System Maintenance”
If the above phrase makes you lose all interest in this article, or makes you shutter with guilt because you don’t do it often enough —or worse, never — then let me tell you how you can do it
  1. easily,
  2. virtually error free,
  3. and without taking away more than a few minutes of your month.
There are of course a few ways to do this, but in order to achieve all of this, especially the last condition you will have to plunk down some cash.
Read on Skeptic, your review awaits…

Another round of Dropbox Scam Emails Spikes my Blog

I have gotten about 10 or more fake dropbox invites this past few weeks, and a funny thing happened: my blog stats spiked like crazy! So, given that fact, I want to help people by reposting the link to that article that should show up in searches as being a fresher piece of info. Again, the advice remains the same, timeless in its wisdom: look before you click.

https://noivad.wordpress.com/2012/06/21/dropbox_invite_scam/

As previously commented: I seriously doubt Dropbox had anything to do with the release of email addresses. Instead, I think that the people phishing have compromised some end user systems and gathered data on who else might have dropbox installed.

Why Dropbox Would Sell Email Addresses

Someone commented that they wondered if Dropbox sold user email addresses. Based on what email address the phishing scam is going to, I would say no. Also, I mentioned that Dropbox makes its money by people upgrading their accounts, and would alienate paying customers if they did. So, the marginal income they would get for selling any customer info would easily be outweighed by the loss of revenue from customers going to one of the many other cloud backup and sync providers.

Personal Cloud Devices

Speaking of cloud or cloud like data access, I am close to purchasing Connected Data’s personal cloud device the Transporter once they can answer a few simple questions. Or I might go with Hyper or Akitio’s Personal Cloud devices. If anyone has experience with these devices, please contact me on app.net (the user name is the same), or comment here. Thanks for reading.

Bye the way: you tech heads need to make sure this Dual 2.1A USB adapter & extension cord succeeds because I need this product. I get nothing out of it but my reward level for backing it, BTW. However, by my estimates, nuPlug will miss funding by 3 days unless we help it out. So please pass this link to NuPlug’s Kickstarter. Daddy needs a new charging solution. I have stepped on extension cords; had to use 2 chargers for a 2.1A iPad and another device, and I have seen companies charging as much (or more) for just a Dual 2.1A USB charging adapter!

PowerTunes: the iTunes Library Management App I Wished For

PowerTunes: a Flexible Time Saver

If you are anything like me, you will love PowerTunes. The reason for this is that I have an iTunes library with tens of thousands of songs that started about a decade ago from ripped CDs. This library has been moved from computer to computer. As a result of this it has built up a lot of crud: orphan files that were removed from the library but never removed, duplicate files thanks to compilations or CDDB errors upon re-rip. Or maybe you have multiple libraries with overlapping content for when you tried to manage everything manually and keep the mp3s separate from the higher quality music as I did? After years of neglect, trying to fix these problems is one of those, “I’ll do it before I backup, or when I am procrastinating from real work” situations. You might get through a few hundred tracks, but never really finish. If this sounds familiar, then read on, for the answer to your mess…

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