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Buildings UI, good and bad
August 13, 2007 1:27 PM   Subscribe

Buildings UI, good and bad
posted by nthdegx (38 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
MetaFilter: frustration with controls can lead to misuse, breakdown, tampering and vandalism.
posted by vrakatar at 1:30 PM on August 13, 2007


I remember when I took a course in software engineering (I forget the exact course it was), I remember my favorite lecture was where we were shown examples of God awful user interfaces and told what is NOT good. It was my favorite simply because some of them were so awful, it was hilarious.

There was a site with a bunch of examples but sadly, I can't find it, so I'll post this somewhat similar bad design link instead.
posted by champthom at 2:03 PM on August 13, 2007


We just installed digital thermostats in an office. Man are those things obnoxiously difficult to use. Press Start and then Set and then hold and press Set twice and them adjust the temperature and then specify the start time and press OK and then adjust the end time and then OK and then... No No No... you're doing it wrong.
posted by yeti at 2:11 PM on August 13, 2007


This is the reason I'm going back to school for software interface design.
Well actually, this, this, and this are.
posted by Brainy at 2:19 PM on August 13, 2007


"Controls may be complicated to use, may display a level of operational information beyond the user's need"

Here's the remote for my living room air conditioner.

Oh, and the bottom half flips open to reveal more buttons.
posted by Bugbread at 2:25 PM on August 13, 2007


Brainy writes "Well actually, this, this, and this are."

Please don't take this as an anti-Mac snark or anything. I've never used a Mac, so this is a real question: Expose is supposed to make finding applications easy to find. Doesn't Mac have something equivalent to the Windows taskbar at the bottom that shows all the running applications? And, if it doesn't, why not? It seems kinda surprising to find out that some aspect of Windows or Linux UI is easier to use than Mac UI. Am I misunderstanding what Expose is used for?
posted by Bugbread at 2:30 PM on August 13, 2007


People really can't resist a Mac/PC argument.

Anyways, to the actual post: their example of a good design at the bottom is a bit confusing to me. What's an "extract controller"?
posted by smackfu at 2:38 PM on August 13, 2007


smackfu writes "People really can't resist a Mac/PC argument."

Yeah, which is why I want to make sure that what I'm saying isn't taken as one. It's a straightforward question because I don't know pretty much anything about how to use a Mac. Not intended to be a fight at all.

smackfu writes "Anyways, to the actual post: their example of a good design at the bottom is a bit confusing to me. What's an 'extract controller'?"

It confused me, too, but I suspect that there isn't really a UI issue, because the people who would be using whatever that is are folks who would know what it meant. For example, if you work with synths, you know what a MIDI port is. If you had a port on the back of a synth labelled "MIDI", and that's where you plug your MIDI cable, it would be an example of perfectly acceptable UI, even though a person who didn't use synths would have no idea what it meant, because the UI is directed at actual users of the equipment, and they would know. I think that's the case here: the people who use the "extract controller" are the users, and as long as it's really clear to them, then it's good UI, even if non-users like us don't get it.
posted by Bugbread at 2:46 PM on August 13, 2007


Reminds me of the examples of bad design in The Design of Everyday Things.
posted by zsazsa at 3:11 PM on August 13, 2007


Am I misunderstanding what Expose is used for?

Only a little. The Dock acts a bit like a Windows Taskbar (in addition to being a quick-launch point). But since Mac OS is generally designed to not have screen-filling windows (it's just not necessary), you often have multiple windows visible at once, stacked on top of one another. Expose makes it easy to see them all and find what you're looking for. As a long-time PC user, it took me a while to wrap my head around the non-maximized windows, but once I did, I found them very useful. I work on a high-resolution widescreen monitor (on a PC) at work nowadays, and I really miss Expose when I've got lots of non-maximized windows open.

On another note, speaking of badly-designed controls, I just bought a new car which, thankfully, has lots of other positive qualities to recommend it. Its turn signal has two detents in each direction. Pressing the stalk to the first detent flashes the signal a few times for a lane change. Pressing it further engages the signal, and the stalk then returns to the center position. With a normal signal -- which we have all used since the beginning of time -- to cancel the signal without turning, one returns the stalk to the center. How do you cancel it on this car?

You push the stalk to the first detent in either direction. If you press beyond the detent, the signal will either continue or engage in the other direction. Not useful; stupid design; fixing something which was not broken.
posted by uncleozzy at 3:15 PM on August 13, 2007


Expose = ALT-TAB

Dock = Task bar + Start panel
posted by junesix at 3:21 PM on August 13, 2007


Another example of interesting design paradigms are car thermostat/temperature controllers/whatever they're called. You have so many different ways it can be divided up.


Am I misunderstanding what Expose is used for?
Not exactly. But sort of.

I work on a pc at work. Like most PC'ers, I keep my windows maximized. It's just easier that way. I have a lot of windows open right now. My taskbar has Photoshop, an Explorer folder, MS Access, ConText, InDesign, another Explorer Folder, Firefox. After typing this post I'm going to go back to what I was working on. What was I working on? Oh right, that invitation I was supposed to send out. What was that in? Did I design it in Photoshop or InDesign? okay, InDesign. Click

Note that crucial question in there. What was I working on, or rather, Where was I? Before expose even came out, a typical experience at my pc was that I'd rather click taskbar icons randomly than stop (sometimes with a brilliant idea coagulating in my brain, ready to be unleashed on the proper window once I found it) and think about where I wanted to do it.

Expose means I don't have to ask myself that question. I just flick my mouse to the corner (a crucial part of bringing it into your workflow, those accidental triggers help remind you it's there) and look for what I want. Less thinking about doing, more doing. It's also beautiful.

I urge you to go to an apple store and try it for yourself. It has the same delightful effect the iPhone's animations have.

On preview
Expose =/= Alt+Tab
Cmd+Tab = Alt+Tab
Expose = trampoline jumping into space above all your windows and landing on the proper one.
posted by Brainy at 3:31 PM on August 13, 2007


uncleozzy: Wow, that sounds like a real lapse. On occasion I'll see cars on the highway with their turn signal on for miles and I wonder if a turn signal design like yours is the cause. Seems like it'd be easy to forget the turn signal was on in the absence of any visual or audible indicators.

One thing I noticed on the OP's link was that the examples of good design used simple analog controls. A big pet peeve is when I see companies add poorly-designed digital controls simply for pizazz. A good digital display requires so many components to be perfect: clear labeling, proper visual feedback, bright display, and quick interface response. So many digital interfaces fall flat on one or many of these. And in those cases, I wish that the manufacturer had just used a tactile rubber button or analog dial and saved me a few bucks.
posted by junesix at 3:38 PM on August 13, 2007


Holy cow... The guy in champthom's link goes and finds some genuine design problems and then ruins his whole argument with "design problems" that just show that he's a clueless twat.

"OMG, these doors are so badly designed because me friend's too clueless to try pushing a door as well as pulling it..."

"OMG I'm too fecking stupid to read the instructions"

Oh for christ's sakes... can't we give these people a snow blower and wait for them to experiment with turning them on using their genitals?

Back on topic, those final switch boxes on the original post are pretty cool...
posted by twine42 at 3:43 PM on August 13, 2007


Actually ALT+TAB on Vista gives you thumbnails of all the windows so it is actually a bit more like what Expose seems to be (not used it myself, just looked at the screenshots).
Plus there's that silly 3D window flick-through thing but that's pretty gimmicky.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:43 PM on August 13, 2007


EoI: The flick-through thing is kind of useful, particularly if you run those apps full-screen (I've noticed it's very useful on devices with small screens). Gives way more context than alt-tab, it works the same if you winkey-tab rather than a click to invoke it.
Brainy: Switcher (http://insentient.net/) will give you 'expose' on windows, but I find it more use to identify windows you've forgotten about than to quickly find the window you're working in - which is always faster with alt-tab on windows (as the last few applications always sit at the top, and repeated alt-tabs will toggle between a couple of windows).
posted by davemee at 3:50 PM on August 13, 2007


Yeah some of champthom's link's complaints have "fixes" that are much worse than the problem at hand.

For instance when I use a projector screen I don't want the switch to be right next to the screen. I want it to be right next to where the person who wants to raise and lower the screen is going to sit.

In addition a lot of his bad designs are really limitations of cheap technology. There are tradeoffs between functionality and price. But his "design fix suggestions" totally miss that.
posted by aspo at 3:54 PM on August 13, 2007


I agree with twine42 about the Bad Designs guy. Some of the things he points out are valid, but others make him look like a moron. Where has he been living that he's never seen a sealed metal tube? The oatmeal "handle" made me want to punch him in the face.
posted by stopgap at 3:59 PM on August 13, 2007


Uncleozzy, Brainy, thanks, that was exactly the info I was wondering about.

aspo writes "Yeah some of champthom's link's complaints have 'fixes' that are much worse than the problem at hand."

And some of his problems seem so...I dunno...personally biased? That is, if he knows Convention A, then any UI that uses Convention A is good UI, but if he doesn't know Convention B, then any UI that uses Convention B is bad UI, even if others are cool with it.

More concretely:

He never complains that light switches are hard to understand. "What, this tiny plastic lever on the wall near the door needs to be moved from the down position to the up position to cause the light way over on the ceiling to light up?!" So as abstract as light switches are, they're good UI. But when it comes to "opening a sealed tube with the little spike built into the lid of the tube", which anyone who has ever used superglue knows about (his wife as well), it's bad UI, because he personally doesn't know that convention.
posted by Bugbread at 4:10 PM on August 13, 2007


davemee: Ah-ha, didn't realise Win+Tab did the 3D thingy. That makes it a bit more useful.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 4:28 PM on August 13, 2007


brainy talks about how the Windows task bar is less than useful -- it shows application names instead of document names. Unfortunately, as brainy tells it, you see an application name down there on the task bar instead of the useful document name.

The same phenomenon exists in the Windows start menu or in the Program Files folder: You had better remember who your application is written by, or you'll have to look through all those menus for it.

This doesn't serve the user -- it only appears to serve the software publishing company, by drumming their name into the user at every turn.

I bet that expose works great, and works really great if the document you're searching for is primarily visual and not textual. But some kind of instant "search for text in all open documents" would be the real killer task switcher for people working with text all the time. Then put the regular, whole-system full-text search just one click or keyboard combo further away.
posted by jepler at 5:09 PM on August 13, 2007


jepler writes "brainy talks about how the Windows task bar is less than useful -- it shows application names instead of document names."

Er...not on mine. I'm using a completely untweaked version of Windows 2000 here at work, and the taskbar shows the icon of the application followed by the name of the document (for example, "[Excel icon] Workflow2.xls"). For things without document names (like Outlook or Thunderbird) it shows the icon of the program followed by the name of the folder being displayed, followed by the name of the application (like "[Thunderbird Icon] Inbox - Thunderbird"). For browsers, it shows the icon of the application, followed by the title of the page being displayed (for example, "[Firefox icon] Buildings UI, good a..."). So, basically, in every case, it's the icon of the app, followed by the name of whatever it is it's displaying.

jepler writes "The same phenomenon exists in the Windows start menu or in the Program Files folder: You had better remember who your application is written by, or you'll have to look through all those menus for it."

Or, you know, organize your menus. It's pretty easy - drag and drop to organize, right click and select "Change Name" to change name (or press F2, if you prefer keyboard shortcuts). Admittedly, if Mac software doesn't require that step, that's great (it pisses me off too that when I move to a computer that isn't mine, people leave stuff sorted by manufacturer, so I have to remember who made what), but don't make the mistake of saying you have to memorize who the application was made by or look through all the menus. There is another choice.
posted by Bugbread at 5:23 PM on August 13, 2007


So the bad UI guy's basic position is this: "If I make a stupid mistake, it's entirely the fault of bad UI, never under any circumstances is it just a stupid mistake."

Must be nice to be so perfect.
posted by oddman at 5:29 PM on August 13, 2007


If something is obvious in retrospect, which is usually what a "stupid mistake" is, it's not really obvious at all.
posted by smackfu at 5:33 PM on August 13, 2007


And sometimes it really is something that you could and should have been able to avoid. The fact that the guy seems to always come down on the side of "it's not me, it's the design." Is just silly.
posted by oddman at 5:38 PM on August 13, 2007


The suggested range knob arrangement is actually really poor. Not only does it place the knobs where one would otherwise place a hot pot or spoon but the controls are exposed to liquids from boil overs or spills.

And this parking brake suggestion is wrong. That's a 96-01 Caravan. The hood release takes a bit of effort to reach but the parking brake is easy. And the label is easy to see from the drivers seat while the hood release label is much more difficult to see. And which do you use more? The parking brake release gets used every time you move the van, the hood release probably averages less than once a week for most people.
posted by Mitheral at 5:56 PM on August 13, 2007


I believe he went to Midvale School for the Gifted.
posted by Tacodog at 7:51 PM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


"OMG, these doors are so badly designed because me friend's too clueless to try pushing a door as well as pulling it..."

See, that's why I always try pushing/pulling a door when it doesn't work the way I tried it first. There are people who don't do this?

And... they were trapped because they couldn't re-open the door they just opened? They didn't try opening it the exact same way they had several seconds ago, but just assumed that it was somehow locked from that side? That's either the funniest or the saddest thing I've seen all day.

It is nice when you can tell at a glance which way a door's supposed to open, though.
posted by Many bubbles at 8:37 PM on August 13, 2007


The suggested range knob arrangement is actually really poor. Not only does it place the knobs where one would otherwise place a hot pot or spoon but the controls are exposed to liquids from boil overs or spills.

Ugh, that's horrible. I can't imagine that anyone who actually uses their stove often would want it like that... especially when you can just, I don't know, label the controls. That also makes it obvious which burner they go with.
posted by Many bubbles at 8:50 PM on August 13, 2007


The problem with complaining about people who make stupid mistakes about user interfaces, as twine42, stopgap, and EndOfInvention do above, is that what you're really doing is making the assumption that people will act according to their level of intelligence. And that's about the most stupid thing anyone can do ever.

People will behave in ways that are extremely stupid, no matter how intelligent they are. You will at some point put try to put your socks away in the fridge. Good design makes it easy to do the things you want to do, and hard to do the things you don't want to do. Great design follows the path of the most stupidly intuitive course of action, and ensures that if your brain is switched off when you go to use it, you'll probably do the right thing anyway.

The best example here is the example of the two doors. Yes, it's probably stupid of someone to get trapped between them. No one would deny that. However, it is measurable that people do it. When you design an interface, you can't count on the intelligent user; you have to design for the real one. And the real one is going to be stupid.

What this means for the door situation is that the article is exactly right: if there were a fire, and a crowd was forced to go through a set of doors like that in a state of alarm, those doors could kill people (admittedly, not nearly as likely as if they opened the other way). People panic, they hesitate, time is lost, something bad happens. Is it likely? Probably not. But could the doors be made safer by changing the appearance of the handles? Yes.

Sure, people should behave intelligently. They should read the instructions, and they should be capable of trying to push as well as pull. But the simple fact is that they don't, and they won't, and that has to be the guiding principle. People stubbornly remain human, and when you design for humans, the word "should" has to go out the door. Sorry, the other door. That one's entrance only.
posted by darksasami at 10:10 PM on August 13, 2007 [3 favorites]


darksasami writes "if there were a fire, and a crowd was forced to go through a set of doors like that in a state of alarm, those doors could kill people (admittedly, not nearly as likely as if they opened the other way)."

Those doors open that way so that in a panic you do the right thing: Proceed forward towards the exit.
posted by Mitheral at 1:06 AM on August 14, 2007


Right. The problem isn't with the direction they open, but with the fact that the handle design is the same as the one you just opened by pulling, only it's push. Hence the recommendation of a flat "push" bar to eliminate confusion.
posted by darksasami at 1:39 AM on August 14, 2007


Darksasami: I agree, and disagree. True, great UI is the ability to make something that even idiots can use. But what's operative here is the plural. If something should be easy to use, and yet folks keep using it wrong stupidly, that's bad UI. Their stupidity should be taken into account. But if something should be easy to use, and yet one guy uses it stupidly, that's not an example of bad UI. It's just proof that there is nothing at all in the world so simple that every single human can do it without making a mistake.
posted by Bugbread at 2:15 AM on August 14, 2007


So, basically, in every case, it's the icon of the app, followed by the name of whatever it is it's displaying.

Which for me at least, is more useful. I mainly run Linux, and Compiz provides an Expose knockoff, and I always seemed to find myself going "Hmm, well I want one of those three spreadsheets..." when I tried to use it. The menubar has the document title. Presumably if I was editing photos this wouldn't be a problem.

As for non-software UIs, the big killer is companies cutting costs by reducing the number of physical controls on devices. "Hold this button for 5 seconds to enter edit mode..."
posted by markr at 2:18 AM on August 14, 2007


Bugbread, true enough. As some guy named Bruce Ediger apparently once said, "the only intuitive interface is the nipple." However, if a perfectly intelligent person has trouble figuring out the interface, it's probably worth looking at it with a critical eye.

In the interest of full disclosure, my background is from technical support, where poor interfaces generate customer phone calls constantly and no one in development ever believes that it's the UI's fault.
posted by darksasami at 2:25 AM on August 14, 2007


darksasami writes "However, if a perfectly intelligent person has trouble figuring out the interface, it's probably worth looking at it with a critical eye."

Basically agreed, but I'd change it to "a lot of perfectly intelligent people". Or, rather, "a lot of perfectly average people". Intelligence shouldn't be a requirement for operating something (well, obviously, it should for a nuclear reactor or the like, but even then intelligence should be required for knowing what to do, not how to operate the controls that do it).
posted by Bugbread at 6:32 AM on August 14, 2007


Reality intrudes on intent time and again, but it is only egotistical fuckhats who stand their ground when confronted with examples of their designs not working, by claiming that the users are stupid.

In the double door example, if I was the building manager, I would be very much "oh shit" if I saw someone not understanding how to operate the doors without thinking. Those "pull" handles would be right off the doors in a heartbeat, and a big fat "PUSH" bar their place.

On the other hand, the dumbass who dumped his oatmeal on the ground is just a dumbass; you don't hold any container by its lid, ever. The new lid is a lot easier to open for people with arthritis or short fingernails. I suppose an alternate design would be the old lid with a plastic tab on it for easy grasping, but even grasping is hard for the arthritic. The ridged inner lip means you just jam your finger in there and pull.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:48 AM on August 14, 2007


Just moved into an apt. and the old tenant left their AC. I almost threw it out becauseit didn't seem to work, but then the temperature dropped. I turned the Temp control to the left (in the - range) and it didn't shut off. Had an "Ohhhhh" moment. Apparently the engineers had a "oven" type of interface in which turning the knob towards the (--) symbol makes it COLDER. (Unlike EVERY other AC i've used where you turn the knob to the right to increase the "power") Actually, I did stay in a hotel once where you had to turn the knob to the left, but it was clearly marked with BLUE for cold and RED for left. This just has a - and a + sign.
posted by Debaser626 at 11:02 AM on August 14, 2007


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