Problem Code 1-1: Piranha plant clogging warp pipe
August 16, 2007 9:49 AM   Subscribe

User interface design so epically bad you need a strategy guide to defeat it. Presenting The Legend of FacilityFocus.
posted by designbot (20 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
This is so not surprising. All it really needs is spinning 3-D unlabeled buttons and a Flash intro and it will be perfect.
posted by maxwelton at 10:04 AM on August 16, 2007

Web application development is an interesting animal. I'm old enough to remember having to print actual CD-ROMs when we needed to update our software, so having the ability to just update a page to implement new features or improve old ones is incredibly appealing. It's wonderful to see lots of sites slowly but surely improve their usability and add features without having to go offline for a week. It's really a different paradigm that just kind of snuck up on us: Every time you visit a webapp, there's a chance something will be a little bit better. Then I come across sites like this, or yesterday when I tried to pay my electric bill online, and it's just so obvious that a programmer was tasked with the UI design and that it's never going to change.
posted by gwint at 10:22 AM on August 16, 2007

I like the users-guide-as-strategy-guide motif.

However, I've seen interfaces that make that thing look positively warm and cuddly.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:27 AM on August 16, 2007

Why in the world did they buy that piece of junk? Did they not get a demo of it first?

Reminds of this website I just used recently. My Lunch Money is a site were you can fund your child's lunch money account for school. It is an OK design, but they insisted on putting all the 'Submit' or 'Continue' buttons on the left of the screen. So the 'Cancel' or 'Back' button is on the right, unlike every other site of app on the planet. I constantly click cancel instead of submit.
posted by internal at 10:37 AM on August 16, 2007

Ha! I stumbled upon this new "feature" at Penn last week and boggled.

Of course as an employee and not an undergrad dorm resident, I don't need this stupid form - I just call my peeps in the operations office.
posted by mbd1mbd1 at 10:42 AM on August 16, 2007

Yay Penn! Of course, I just had my School of Medicine new staff orientation today, and I have to disagree with mbd1mbd1--- there are some things for employees that aren't much less arcane.

Of course, since I was an undergrad here for four years, I can also attest to the fact that maintenance requests were a giant PITA. It took months to get my bathroom door (which took a giant shoulder-push to open) replaced.
posted by supercres at 11:10 AM on August 16, 2007

...and it's just so obvious that a programmer was tasked with the UI design and that it's never going to change.
As a non-developer who was brought in to work with a floor full of developers in order to bring a more user-focused mindset to the sofware development, I can attest to the "swimming upstream while large bears are trying to grab you" feeling that trying to change said developer's attitudes can engender.
Just explaining common user workflow patterns was like banging my head against a brick wall. Eventually, they got it...and actually liked it...but it was rough sailing for awhile.

Everything highlighted in the "Legend" is terrifyingly familiar.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:20 AM on August 16, 2007

Interface Hall of Shame: Lotus Notes

T.he login window for the Lotus Notes utilizes a security "feature" to defeat would-be onlookers from learning your password. Never mind the fact that the password characters are not displayed (as with all login windows), the designers decided to add further "protection" by adding extraneous characters to the password field, so would-be onlookers cannot determine how many characters are contained in the password (in the above example, a six-character password is being entered). Further, as groups of characters are typed, the images on the dialog change to distract the would-be onlooker from observing the number of (extraneous) characters typed. Now if Notes could somehow mask the sound of keypresses at the keyboard, all this programming effort might be worth something.

Who cares.

This is not the login window for a weapons targeting system; it is an e-mail application. We wish the designers had spent their time improving the usability of the application itself rather than wasting it on useless diversions.

posted by jcruelty at 11:40 AM on August 16, 2007

As a developer who's pretty tired of the "all bad UI is due to choices made by developers" attitude, I'd also like to point out that sometimes the developer has no choice— you're tasked with exactly duplicating some baroque set of forms and procedures based on mimeographs from the '50s, and deviation is not allowed. That's what I think happened here; the web app exposes their internal process, which really should have stayed internal.

(And designers produce plenty of wretched UI as well; many designers don't seem to understand that there are many, many disjoint fields referred to as "design", and making something pretty doesn't make it usable.)
posted by hattifattener at 11:46 AM on August 16, 2007 [4 favorites]

I don't have any deep insight to offer about bad application design -- it's a well-documented problem -- but I do have to say:

"Problem Code 1-1: Piranha plant clogging warp pipe"

This right here? This is the most awesome thing I'm going to read all day.
posted by majick at 11:46 AM on August 16, 2007

hattifattener: I agree with you that designers are perfectly capable of producing terrible UIs (the worst are the ones that look all shiny and glimmery on the surface, but it's clear that all the designer did was comp it up in Photoshop but never actually think about how the app would be used) but part of the reason why there should be a separation between the coder and designer/information architect/"experience engineer"/whatever they're called this week is that that guy can spend a lot of his time arguing with the client about user experience while you focus on database schemas and making sure the xhtml validates. It frees both of you to focus on what you do best.
posted by gwint at 12:13 PM on August 16, 2007

hattifattener - I feel your pain, I've been there many times myself. See also: Non-sensical specs, last minute client requested features that make no sense, the manager who focuses entirely on some hard-to-do pet feature of little worth that somehow ends up taking all your time...
posted by Artw at 12:52 PM on August 16, 2007

gwint - in my experience the "information architect"/whatever is just as likely to be a total chancer who's utterly winging it as anybody else.
posted by Artw at 12:54 PM on August 16, 2007

Not to mention developers who are left without any design or UI support whatsoever. Oddly, it doesn't seem like designers are ever told to come up with an awesome UI, and then hack some code in behind the scenes to make it function. Only goes the other way.

My present life is much less full of this situation than it has been in the past. But this application has all the hallmarks of a developer who wasn't even given a PS comp or a set of wireframes to work from. Whoever you are, I feel your pain.
posted by rusty at 12:59 PM on August 16, 2007

There seems to be an entire class of software vendors that supply products that allegedly meet the needs of education and other institutional clients (healthcare, military, etc.). These vendors produce ridiculously expensive and unusable crap- the sort of stuff that is bought by committees composed of upper echelon management types who will never need to deploy or try to use the garbage they're spending vast amounts of other people's money on. Software solutions too unfriendly, unstable, and incompatible to last a minute in the universe of competitive business.

I hold two day-jobs in a state university system so I rub up against this sort of junkware all the time. I was tempted to link the words "unusable", "crap", and "garbage" to some examples that are especially hideous, but hesitate to because of the severity of my opinions.
posted by squalor at 2:35 PM on August 16, 2007

This is pretty bad. I don't blame the developers per say, but someone there was really frikken stupid.

The thing is, this form is perfect for operations. Most of them will have all the codes in their heads after about 2 weeks or so, and suddenly the form they have makes perfect sense. No wasting time going through drop downs or drillthrus or fance flash interfaces to enter in information (for example, I generally want to kill people who force me to enter a date using a calendar. I know how to enter the date how you want -- you can go to hell!)

However, the design disconnect comes when you think about the customer input. They're going to be dealing with this input once, hopefully twice, and then they'll be done with it.

For these people, a wizard is exactly what they need. Take them step by step, first identifying location, then targeting the problem. At each step, you use drill-downs to narrrow the selection until you have the exact piece of information you need, then that gets saved as the relevant code.

The problem is that too often when applications of any kind are developed, people think in terms of the data being stored. I know I have! I have lots of old programs I'm not proud of, but you know what? I was working with very few people for very little money. And still I never made anything as bad as this.

This company licensed this program for a university, so not only does it have to be expensive, it has to be ridiculously expensive. Remember, it's not really enterprise unless it costs too much and it sucks.

This is why there are often shadow systems in larger organizations. Developed in house based on the needs of the users because they make it themselves, usually working parellel to (rather than with) the sanctioned applications. Sometimes shadow systems are software; sometimes it just means putting a sticky note with the codes written on it (the strategy guide being a sort of digital sticky note). For people interested in shadow systems, or other ways that users subvert the existing systems to their own purposes, I recommend the following:

Spinuzzi, C. (2003). Tracing genres through organizations : a sociocultural approach to information design. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Jones, D., Behrens, S., Jamieson, K., and Tansley, E. (2004). The rise and fall of a shadow system: Lessons for enterprise system implementation. Hobart, Tasmania. ACIS.

references cut and pasted from my master's thesis. Effective information sharing is one of my little passions, so please be gentle with me
posted by Deathalicious at 3:25 PM on August 16, 2007 [6 favorites]

This is why there are often shadow systems in larger organizations.

I did this during school, and I'm not even IT at all. Basically the story I was told was that if we wanted fancy things like PHP on the website the best we could do was get the IT guys to open port 80 to an IP in our part of the network and put in a subdomain for us. For a while another office of the school came to us for their website hosting because we seemed easier to get nice things from, and we had a few things still being hosted that were like simple CGI apps from 1999 for similar arrangements.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 3:51 PM on August 16, 2007

All great developers should have little bit of good designer in them. Developers who produce unusable software are bad developers.
posted by jeffamaphone at 4:03 PM on August 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

...(healthcare, military, etc.). These vendors produce ridiculously expensive and unusable crap...

+1 for mentioning military. I'll name some for you.
omms-ng[pdf] [no screenshots - too ashamed, I guess]
Reactor plant chemistry logging software

Trying to work in today's Navy (at least shipboard) consists mostly of waiting for much of the day for a chance to use a shared computer (less than two dozen for over 160 people), fighting with software whose interface is worse than that of the original link, and trying to make one of the four or five crappy printers print legibly. Time saver? Not even close.

I would seriously use a manual Underwood typewriter all day instead and get much more work done, if that was an option. It's not.
posted by ctmf at 9:48 PM on August 16, 2007

Internal: Reminds of this website I just used recently. My Lunch Money is a site were you can fund your child's lunch money account for school. It is an OK design, but they insisted on putting all the 'Submit' or 'Continue' buttons on the left of the screen. So the 'Cancel' or 'Back' button is on the right, unlike every other site of app on the planet. I constantly click cancel instead of submit.

Actually, check out various flows on eBay... All of the submit buttons are on the left. Thought it boggles the mind, this actually tested measurably better in a series of studies with loads of participants (a few sites talked about it, don't remember which). I still don't agree with it, though.
posted by pkingdesign at 10:06 PM on August 16, 2007

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