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Improving Software Usability? 108

Posted by Cliff
from the UIs-that-users-won't-mind-using dept.
kevin_conaway asks: "Software usability is one of the hardest things to get right. Writing good, usable software is the holy grail of software development, yet few developers give it more than an afterthought. As a professional developer, I delight in writing software for other developers but shy away from writing an interface that the end users will see. What resources/books are recommended for improving your Human Computer Interaction (HCI) / software usability skills?"
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Improving Software Usability?

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  • here are a couple: (Score:5, Interesting)

    by yagu (721525) * <yayagu@gmai[ ]om ['l.c' in gap]> on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @11:47PM (#15399119) Journal
    Don't Make Me Think [amazon.com] and The Design of Everyday Things [amazon.com]... two of my very favorite books.

    "Think" is more web centric, but has many tips and insights, and is an accessible read cover to cover.

    "Design" is a bit more pompous, and I don't agree with all points, but I give it high marks for making you take a different look at things you'd always taken for granted (Microsoft asked me a question at my interview from this book, btw).

    A few more thoughts: don't confuse usability with user responsibility. If a task if tediously complex, it's going to be difficult to design a thin elegant easy-to-use interface. For example, photoshop can be amazingly obtuse to use, but there's a reason. Overall I give photoshop a "5" (out of ten) for their ergonomics, but I give them a "10" for what their application can do. I consider it partially my responsibility to climb that learning curve to do real work in digital graphics.

    On the other hand, the unusable applications out there are infinite. My favorite example is Windows Media Player. I still have to figure out what to do just to play a CD with WMP. (And what's with the disappearing window?)

    (Here's an interesting non-software example of horrible design: my parents have an RCA TV, not that old, but not HD. It has Videos 1, 2, 3 input, Cable/Air input, and VCR. There's a "SETUP" button on the front panel that lets you change the signal input from Cable/Air to VCR (or something like that), but the only way you can get Video 1, 2, or 3 is by tuning the TV channel to 91, 92, or 93 respectively. Until I found the manual and got to page 60 I was convinced the TV was broken.)

    My favorite example of transcendental usability: Google.

    (Some runners up: Picasa; Amazon.com (one-click), wish list, etc.)

    (Also, I am opposite as to who I like to write for: I cringe when writing for other professional software developers, they're some of the biggest whiners about "what should be". I do however delight in writing software for clients. If you do it right, it's a genuine high.)

  • by Freaky Spook (811861) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @11:58PM (#15399161)
    I can't stand software that makes it extremly difficult to get your data out of, that is one of the worst things about a lot of software.

    Developers deliberatly giving people software, then making them "upgrade" to a premium version if they want to export their mail, documents, photos, or anything else should be shot on site!

    Easy import and export of data should be the one thing your product should be easy to do, aggrevating your customer because you chose to take their data then try to extort it out of them definatley does not go well for easy usability.
  • by vanyel (28049) * on Thursday May 25, 2006 @12:38AM (#15399318) Journal
    I consider it partially my responsibility to climb that learning curve to do real work in digital graphics.

    For the stuff that is technically advanced, I agree, though it should still be intuitive for someone who is technically advanced in the field.

    Photoshop and Illustrator are classic examples of what I consider bad user interfaces, because things that should be simple and obvious, aren't. For example, cropping a picture (Elements actually fixed this one): you drag the border as you'd expect, then you want to fine tune it. Bzzzt. You had to use some combination of shift-alt-click-something to adjust it, or do the add/subtract from selection thing.

    On the other hand, Elements has broken something simple and basic: resizing images. Something even earlier versions of Photoshop did well. No more: "resize/image size" just changes some parameter it saves that says how big to print it, and the only options you get are printer units. OK, fine, leave "resizing" to the printer people, there's a canvas size option, but no, that is effectively a crop if you shrink it and adds blank space if you expand it. How about the scale menu item, that should work. Nope: "transformations should be applied to layers. do you want to make the background a layer?" Despite the word "should", your only options are to cancel the entire operation or to let it make a layer out of it. And I don't want to resize one layer, I want to resize the entire thing!

    Sorry, but crappy non-intuitive user interfaces are a hot button, and I just recently tripped over this one. In my mind, the entire point of a GUI is that you shouldn't have to RTFM to do the basic functions of the application.

    Just because a tool is powerful doesn't mean it has to be non-intuitive...
  • by jchenx (267053) on Thursday May 25, 2006 @02:35AM (#15399608) Journal
    I think too many companies focus just on heuristic evaluation [wikipedia.org]. That's basically paying a UI expert to tell you what to do and what not to do. A lot of companies won't even hire a usability expert, instead relying on their own engineers to "read a lot of books" and try to wing it.

    This is bad.

    Just like how software engineers should not be trusted to test their own code, they should also not be trusted to do "good usability". I'm saying this as a software engineer, who also has a Masters in usability engineering and has been in the field for a few years. Too often I'm surrounded by fellow engineers who think they know what's best for the user. Also, they'll claim that a certain design is best because it also makes for a "clean UI" and "clean code design". Then we sit users in front of the application, and all hell breaks loose.

    Don't do this. Spend the money to hire a good usability expert, and have THEM perform proper usability studies. Good usability is NOT necessarily about a "clean UI" or "clean code". It's about a product that people know how to use. After this is established, it is then up to the engineers to make sure the actual implementation itself is clean, extensible, un-cluttered, etc. Not the other way around.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 25, 2006 @07:20AM (#15400311)
    Kind of ironic, then, that usability is the thing Gnome does worst.

    They concentrate entirely on complete newcomers, people who've never used a computer before, and try to make everything simple for them. Unfortunately, this completely ignores the fact that the majority of people in the developed world have learned just enough about computers to blunder through Windows - which means that Gnome, by deliberately making things work totally differently (the "spatial" thing is a great example), actually makes itself less usable for the average person.

    Seriously, I've watched people try to get to grips with Gnome. People who type with two fingers. People so clueless that, when they want to switch from one file in Word to another, they close Word, open Explorer, and spend ten minutes laboriously browsing for the file they want, because they don't know about Word's handy "recent files" list or ability to edit multipled documents simultaneously.

    People that Gnome should be designed for.

    It sucks for them. Even petty differences like the order of buttons in a dialog box throw them completely, and they can't figure out what do press because the options are "Save" and "Don't save", and they want "OK". And using the "spatial Nautilus"? Forget it. Far, far too difficult. They cannot figure out why it keeps opening more windows, or why they pop up all over the place instead all in the same spot.

    So much for "usability first". Seems to be more "ideology first", where the ideology in question is "Windows users? We don't need no stinking Windows users".

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