1) /. usability rating? (Score:5, Interesting)
by Col. Klink (retired) (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Would you care to comment on the usability of Slashdot? Good? Bad? Ugly? Be sure to read the apache section before answering that last one.
Obviously, Slashdot has great usability for its targeted user base of nerds. The proof is in the pudding, in that they use it so much and keep coming back. There is nothing here but pure user interface: nothing you buy or get, so if people use it, it must be because it is good. This said, many elements of the interface would present too much complexity for more average users. For example, the many different ways of viewing and sorting threaded discussions is quite difficult to understand. How do you really know what you will see if you click on one of the links from the home page?
There are three elements of Slashdot that I particularly like:
- Simplicity in the layout itself: focus on content rather than flash.
- The liberal use of linking - in fact, the site lives off the ability to link to the rest of the Web. Too many other sites forget that hypertext is the foundation of the Web and provide nothing but a closed world.
- The reputation manager effect coming from the moderation system.
2) Short vs long pages (Score:5, Interesting)
by Anonymous Coward
In most of your writings and interviews, you seem to be recommending short pages as always better than long ones. Sometimes you qualify this as applying only to 'navigation pages'-- but you never define that term. Aren't there more complex rules about when it's okay to have a long page? Don't you yourself find it frustrating when you have to load multiple pages, when one longer page could easily have held all the info?
This very page itself is getting to be too long :-)
It depends on how you look at this page. If you think of it as a single interview, then it is best to preserve it as a single page since the users would just skim over those questions that don't interest them. If you think of it as a set of answers, it would be better to have a short summary of the entire collection and then have links to individual questions and answers. Unfortunately, the Web is currently too slow to support this type of hypertext (we need subsecond response times for true freedom of movement). It would be nice to have a more advanced model of Web hypertext that would support alternative views of both atomic information objects and composite information objects.
Talking about navigation pages, brevity does rule. Users need to be able to get an overview of their choices without having to scroll too much. Ideally without having to scroll at all. If you need to scroll while making the choice of where to go next, then you are forced to keep promising options in short-term memory after they scroll out of view. The Slashdot audience may not fully appreciate the problem of having to keep items in short-term memory since you only become a programmer if you are good at doing this. Most people are not. All users will furthermore suffer from the tendency to select among the visible choices: if something looks like a good answer and as the best answer, then users will often follow that link without scrolling down to see if there might be an even better link on the invisible part of the page.
3) Browsers compensating for bad sites (Score:5,
by Ed Avis (email@example.com)
To what extent will people start using their browser's features to compensate for bad Web sites? For example, your browser might automatically convert frames to tables, or precis long chunks of text, or concatenate lots of bitty pages into one easily-readable page. Since there will always be badly designed sites out there, do you think this is a useful sticking-plaster?
Great idea. The Web has always been based on this notion to some extent. For example, the Back button in the browser (as opposed to relying completely on site-supported navigation) and the ability to make the font bigger or smaller (as opposed to hoping that every site gets it exactly right).
We may have temporarily abandoned some of the user control over the Web in the chase for better-looking pages, and one of the worst sins in using CSS is to specify text in an absolute font size that doesn't change if the user needs bigger or smaller text.
I am hoping that future generations of browsers will finally live up to their names and actually help users browse (or Navigate or Explore, as the case may be). If the big browser vendors won't do it, then that's a potential market for other browsers like Opera and iCab or for various types of browser add-on tools.
4) Patent culture vs Open Source culture (Score:5,
You are the holder (or co-holder) of quite a number of patents. Can Open Source software builders who construct, for example, something that "prints a hyperspacial document" or "updates visual bookmarks" expect to be hearing from your attorneys?
The literal answer is no, since "my" patents are actually not mine but owned by the company I worked for at the time. I cannot speak for the attorneys of Sun since I don't work there any more. But it is pretty standard for big computer companies to get as many patents as they can for basic reasons of self-defense: if somebody tries to come after you then you can fight back with your own patents. That usually does not mean that the company wants to go after smaller companies unless they attack first.
5) Revolutionary UNIX GUIs (Score:5, Insightful)
by Anonymous Coward
In a Wired article on Eazel posted to Slashdot the other day, you said:
"They need to rethink the entire approach... They're saying let's implement a Mac-like interface so that we can have a nicer Unix. That's a nice thing, I guess, but it's not really revolutionary."
Can you describe some specific ideas and UI elements you would consider if you were designing the "revolutionary" Linux GUI?
I know that Slashdot readers don't want to hear this, but the very first question is whether it is even possible to create a truly good user experience on top of Linux. Many other companies have tried to make Unix easy to use and many very talented designers have worked hard on these projects for several years without very good results.
The only data points we have say that it can't be done.
I tend to believe in an alternative interpretation of the data, which is that the various approaches to designing better Unix interfaces were doomed because they always kept reinventing the same thing again and again. They never did the two things that are necessary for great UI:
- Don't just reimplement something that had a different design center (the Mac which was designed for a small black-and-white screen, 1MB RAM, and a puny 68000 processor)
- Iterate. Your first design will be a flop (say, Xerox Star or Apple Lisa). You gotta keep improving rather than giving up as the Unix vendors have done.
There is already one type of revolutionary UI built on top of Linux: embedded systems in the form of information appliances. Linux inside. You can't tell from the outside, though. A typical information appliance may only have 2-3 commands in the form of simple buttons or knobs.
All respect for info appliances, but we also need a workstation-style interface that can help knowledge workers survive the information flood of modern society. And that's where I think we really need revolutionary designs that go beyond the Mac. For example, ways of managing tens of thousands of documents by a rich set of attributes and content-oriented navigation. Simply showing files as icons in folders doesn't cut it beyond a few hundred.
We also know from many studies that the average user is very bad at hierarchical filing and typically never moves a file once it gets to live in some directory. Even if the file would be better off elsewhere. This problem is magnified several hundred times when it comes to managing email. I am starting to think that the solution is to treat information objects as members of a soup and manage them by attributes rather than by hierarchy and name.
6) Standards Compliance (Score:5, Interesting)
What are your views on standards compliance for, baseline, HTML 4.01 and CSS-1? Are we fighting towards a goal which is universally unattainable (due to the embbeded nature of some browsers like WebTV and *cough* IE on Windows), or are we nearing a new age for web developers?
At least WebTV can update its browser when/if they decide to do so. And IE is also getting better, even if it doesn't do everything I would want. But we will soon see a new generation of hardwired browsers inside information appliances. Once a piece of consumer electronics ships, it usually doesn't get upgraded. Thus it will be really important to campaign for full standards compliance from such truly embedded browsers.
I am basically hopeful that we will see more respect for standards on the Web. The concept of proprietary extensions has lost and very few mainstream sites do anything any more that cannot be seen by the vast majority of users. This is one of the true benefits from the boom in e-commerce. No self-respecting salesperson wants to turn away paying customers at the door just because they don't have the latest beta-download of some browser.
7) Non-GUI apps and usability (Score:5, Interesting)
by washort (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Much attention is given to usability in GUIs and Web sites, (such as in your column Novice vs. Expert Users) but what about textmode and primarily keyboard applications such as text editors? Personally, I believe that Emacs have the best user interface of any text editor I've ever used (vi's a close second, calm down people :), but it's geared towards experts. What do you see for the future with regard to synthesizing novice usability and expert usability? the "smart menus" as seen in MS Office 2000 seem to head in that direction, only showing basic options unless an expansion button is pressed at the bottom of the menu. The best touch is that it "remembers" what you last used from the full menu and puts it on the basic menu. How can we smooth the curve?
There was a good deal of research on the usability of textmode UI back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Conference proceedings like CHI'83 (first large user interface conference) are filled with papers on issues like command abbreviations and best use of command keys. However, as we all know, interest changed to GUIs after the Mac came out in 1984.
We do need more attention to the productivity of expert users. All the same methods apply for how to study and measure interfaces, no matter what their interaction style, but I admit that there is not much work these days on keyboard interfaces.
The other part of the question is much harder to address. How to smooth the curve from novice to expert. Nobody has found the way yet. Cue cards, boot-up tips, and the little annoying paper clip are all attempts, but nothing works really well. Progressive disclosure is the best tool so far: show people the basics first, and once they understand that, allow them to get to the expert features. But don't show everything all at once or you will only confuse people and they will waste endless time messing with features that they don't need yet. Interestingly, research by Jack Carroll at IBM in the 1980s proved that a "training wheels" approach to computers makes people better at understanding the expert features once they get to them. The reason being that users learn the conceptual structure of the system better when they are presented with the smaller set of features first. Not seeing something during initial use of the system would result in better use of the hidden features later.
8) Education (Score:5, Interesting)
by Duke of URL (email@example.com)
What type of education did you (and others ) have to receive to become a useability expert? Basically what's the best route to get a career in human-computer factors?
The only real way to become a usability expert is to watch lots of users as they perform lots of different types of tasks with lots of different designs and interaction styles. If you have only seen people use a single type of user interface, then you don't have the breadth of understanding of user behavior. I find that I often draw what I learned from the studies we did with IBM mainframe interfaces back in the 1980s, even as I advise on the design of websites. One reason, of course, is that many Web interfaces are as primitive as the old 3270 designs. But another reason is that watching what people do under many different circumstances helps generate insight into what they will do under new circumstances.
There is no single answer in terms of degree. The best people in the field today have degrees in countless topics, including psychology, anthropology, computer science, mathematics, graphic design, and theater. None of these degrees is perfect for becoming a usability expert. The real way to learn usability is to do usability as much as possible.
9) What's Next? (Score:5, Interesting)
by moonboy (firstname.lastname@example.org)
What is the next "big thing" in interfaces?
Surely "windowing" can't be the end-all-be-all of interfaces. Is there some paradigm shift around the corner which we can't conceive of right now? Perhaps the same "leap" which occurred going from command line/text to windows.
There are two things I do not think are the next big thing: 3D and speech recognition. Speech suffers from the Star Trek fallacy: it's a great audience interface but not a good user interface in most situations.
I think there are two big paradigm shifts coming: Augmented reality and content-and time-based computing.
Augmented reality is the ability to project a user interface onto the physical world. For example, when repairing an airplane engine, a trainee mechanic can see an animated hand grab exactly in the right spot. And read-outs from various diagnostics will display in the context of the thing they are diagnosing rather than on a separate device. Lots of other ideas in this realm, including wearable computing, smart clothes, etc.
I also believe we need more information-rich interfaces as I was discussing above. I think the current Macintosh-style UI will be turned inside-out and we will start to manage information objects depending on a much larger set of attributes than simply their name and hierarchical placement. In particular, history and other time-based attributes will become more important. When did I last touch this object? What other things were I doing at the time?
Also, the computer will need to become a personal secretary and help the user manage his or her time. The opposite of push technology which was based on constant temptation to procrastinate. In the old days, an operating system was designed to optimize the utilization of the computer's resources. In the future, its main goal will be to optimize the user's time. For example, in terms of protecting you from too much e-mail.
10) Disturbing anecdotes (Score:5, Insightful)
by Anonymous Coward
If Ronald Reagan's speeches proved one thing to us, it's this: a well-chosen anecdote can drown out innumerable (and true) statistics. I was wondering whether you might have any good terrifying anecdotes that might scare people who are about to make an unusable Web site into doing the right thing.
Boo.com is one good anecdote. They wasted millions of dollars on fancy design which they had to retract shortly after the launch because nobody could use it. Even on a fashion site, people care more about the products than about the bleeding edge design.
Also, the Web itself is one big anecdote. What do all the big sites have in common? Minimalist design. I made a very simple analysis of the usability of the ten sites with the most traffic compared to the sites from the ten biggest companies (which would have had an inherent advantage if they had been more usable). The result was very clear: The ten biggest sites had much better usability scores than the sites built by huge corporations. For example, the download time for the home page was eight seconds for the big sites and 19 seconds for the big companies.
What happens is very simple: the good sites win. If the pages download fast, people return. If they can find the products, then they can buy the products. If people understand the site, they use it.