Ignite 7: The Coming Revolution in Highway Communication

I promised I would have a more detailed discussion on my proposal to redesign vehicle signals. A five-minute presentation is great, but isn’t quite enough to really cover the details.

The current signal layout has stop lights, reverse lights and turn signals, which are also used as hazard lights. These are the only lights dedicated to signaling a driver’s intentions. We have parking lights and headlights too, but they don’t count. Seriously, they’re not signals.

What’s my problem with this setup? Let’s go over all the lights one at a time.

Turn signals

Turn signals are used to indicate all sideways movement. But there isn’t just one way to move sideways. For one, we change lanes quite often. In many cases, where it’s possible to change lanes or make a turn, it’s difficult to show a driver’s intentions.

Not all intersections are your standard four-way situation. Many have multiple roads in a given direction, and in those cases, it’s common for one lane to lead into two different turns. Also, on highways where two exits split off from the same place, it’s difficult knowing if a driver is taking the more gradual exit or making the sharper turn.

U-turns aren’t legal in all states, but even in those states there are places where they are explicitly allowed. And even where they aren’t, they still happen. Many drivers preparing for a u-turn will use a blinker, then start turning in the opposite direction to allow room to complete the turn. This confuses other drivers, but a dedicated u-turn light would clear up a lot of that confusion.

My idea to revamp the turn signal would look a little like this. To control these lights, we’d have a slight change to the controls we use today: The lane change signal would be activated by moving the blinker switch up or down, without clicking. Releasing the switch would turn the blinker off. Clicking the switch once would turn the soft turn signal on, and a second click activates the hard turn light. Once either direction is blinking, pulling on the switch (which usually toggles the brights with the current setup) turns on the u-turn signal. No matter what signal is on, pushing the switch will always return it to the center, disabling all turn signals.

Brake lights

It doesn’t seem too crazy to expect brake lights to respond to a driver slamming on the brakes, and inform other drivers that the car is decelerating faster than normal.

An outer ring could flash rapidly around the solid standard brake light when the system detects the car slowing down faster than what would be considered normal. I imagine there’d be some testing to determine what that rate would be. Also, if the driver slams on the brakes but the car doesn’t slow down as fast, maybe with faulty brake lines or ice on the road, the outer ring should still flash, to warn others that something isn’t right.

Hazard lights

It bothers me that cars still use the same lights for hazards that they do for turn signals. It seems irresponsible for a manufacturer to limit a driver’s ability to signal a lane change or turn while also signaling that there’s something wrong with the car.

Also, hazards are used in a wide variety of situations, from flat tires to overheated engines to simply driving slower than others up a steep incline. Hazards are generally thought to signal serious problems, so drivers are apprehensive about using them for more mild situations, such as driving a bit slower to save gas or driving in an unfamiliar area.

Like the two-part stop light, these lights would have a mild hazard mode and a severe hazard mode. Maybe drivers would be more willing to use them in less extreme cases if both modes were available.

It only seems natural to make the hazard signal in the shape of a triangle, since that symbol is used to illustrate dangerous situations on the road already. Of course the light should be red, like most hazard triangles and reflectors used to signal accidents and construction zones.

Controlling the dual hazard lights could use a switch much like the one used to control the fan on a kitchen stove: left to mild hazards, right for serious hazards, center to tun both off. Or a button shaped like the hazard symbol, where drivers can push the inner or outer triangles, and the lights would turn on accordingly.

The lights on an actual car don’t need to be nearly this big. That’s one thing many modern automobile manufacturers don’t seem to understand about LEDs. They’re much brighter and clearer, and a light made of LEDs is much more painful to look at than a traditional bulb light of the same size. A simple row of lights will work for the turn signals, and animating the signals would be even more effective.

The horn

This isn’t really in the scope of my main idea, but I do like the idea of a less aggressive horn, used when a driver wants to get someone’s attention when there is no immediate danger. First of all, it must be easier to engage the aggressive horn, since it must be used in emergencies. But a smaller button could activate what I called the Happy Horn in my presentation, which fades in and rises a bit in pitch, so it isn’t as surprising.

I’m very much against using the Angry Horn while arming and disarming car alarms. They’re typically used in parking lots where people are walking around, and to those people, it sounds like somebody is honking at them. Also irresponsible. I’m not a fan of superfluous government regulations, but I’d support one that bans horns used in this case.

Straight ahead signal

An idea I had when brainstorming for this presentation was a straight ahead signal. Why would this be a good idea? There are instances where it would be nice to let others know when I am going straight, and I just know they’re wondering if I’m just forgetting to signal a turn. A straight ahead signal would clear up that confusion, but to be effective, drivers would have to get in the habit of using the signal at every stop and every scenario where turning is an option. The straight ahead light would become the default signal, equivalent to using no signal, and would either be left on all the time or never used. I just don’t see this signal helping things, even though three of the four possible directions–left, right and backward–have their own dedicated signals.

Can we change?

This is all a pretty big change. Not just in the design and controls of the signals, but in the way we use them and expect others to do the same, in a world where half the drivers don’t already use the blinkers they’ve got.

I mention in the presentation that people have changed their recycling habits over time, which called for a change in the way garbage companies handled and dealt with the trash. This was a successful shift brought on by a concern for the environment. A concern for safety and efficient communication might be able to do the same for our car signals.

People are willing to invest in better systems when they feel the investment is worth it. We’ll pay money for a newer technology, like the jump from VHS to DVD, and spend the time learning to use a new computer application, as long as we think the time and money put into it will pay off.

So that’s what I’ve got so far. I would like to add some ideas to this proposal, but after working on the slides and narrowing my words down to 15-second chunks and then re-typing it for this blog post, I’m a bit burnt out on the whole thing. I want a milkshake.

28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XXVIII

Roman numerals are great for game titles, and that’s about it.

There are a few reasons I saved this one for last. First, I titled all my posts with Roman numerals knowing I would be ironically denouncing them at the end. Second, the number 28 uses more characters than the first 27, and it helps prove my point when I have to type six characters instead of two in the title. And finally, it’s been quite a month typing one entry per day on topics I can be pretty obsessed with, and I thought a lighter subject like this would be a good way to finish it off.

Roman numerals fell out of vogue several hundred years ago, replaced primarily by the Arabic numbers we use today. The advantages of Arabic numerals over Roman are many. For one, Roman numerals use only three characters to depict every number until 40 (the added character, L, means 50, but the character itself is used in the number 40), and then a new character is added only a handful of times until reaching the largest character, M, representing one thousand (although, as with L, M is used in writing 900, which is 100 less than M represents). So, writing each number from 1 to 899, a scant six characters are used, resulting in long strings of characters to express numbers often less daunting than their characters make them out to be.

Another disadvantage to Roman numerals is the inconsistency with which increasing numbers are portrayed. While our Arabic numbers get longer as the value goes up, some simple additions with Roman characters, such as 98 to 100, seem to shrink considerably in size: from XCVIII to XCIX to C. This inconsistent correlation of numbers to characters makes it difficult to judge the size of a number by its length.

Because the largest number assigned a character in the Roman numbering system is 1,000, it would be difficult to show numbers used when discussing scientific matters, such as the age of the earth, the distance from here to Neptune, or the number of molecules in a cheese sandwich. Because Roman numerals add to themselves rather than multiply, the way our current numeric system works, a row of eight Ms would equal 8,000, while a one followed by just as many zeros would equal one hundred million. This also means scientific notation, our system for representing gigantic numbers with superscript exponents, is out of the question with Roman numerals.

And on top of all that, the Roman numeral system had no zero. So while there was no way to give an accurate depiction of the size of a piece of sand, there was also no number that would describe it to be essentially nothing.

Why am I even talking about all this? Are we in danger of an uprising of this archaic numbering system? Probably not, but there are times where Roman numerals are used in the interest of artistic license, despite their awkward and inadequate ways. Probably the few most common uses still employed today are in series of movies, books and video games, as long as the series doesn’t go much further than a dozen installments, and clock faces, most notably Big Ben.

Not only are these numerals foreign enough to hinder recognition in the first place, but here they’ve been further designed into obscurity as to render the numbers completely unreadable. The V appears to be II, and the X looks like I with a small line through the middle. Clocks like this are found in many places–there was one on my living room wall when I was a kid–and most aren’t much easier to read, even close up. But since most people are familiar with the placement of these numbers without having to read them–and, as Swatch proved in the ’80s, the numbers don’t even really have to be there at all–it’s not necessary to read the numbers, just the position of the hands relative to the top of the clock. Apparently using more legible Arabic numerals, while expediting the whole point of having a clock in the first place, just wouldn’t be as beautiful.

Many video game series use Roman numerals for each sequel beyond the first release. Because the need to quickly identify a game’s place in a series based on its cover rarely becomes an ordeal, this usage presents much less of a problem than when used on clock faces. And because most game series usually come to an end before getting into the teens, large lines of Roman characters hardly overwhelm the title. One series quickly approaching that threshold is Square Enix’s most popular franchise. Final Fantasy VI is a succinct title for a video game, while Final Fantasy XVIII (scheduled for release in 2016) is going to start feeling a little number-heavy. The Super Bowl, already well beyond the point at which most people can easily identify its title (this month marked number XLIII, or 43), shows how out of hand this usage can quickly become.

The same way sans serif typefaces are typically used as display fonts, Roman numerals serve, if anywhere at all, as display numbers. Trying to parse a string of Roman characters greatly impedes legibility in a block of text, but in small doses–and in small numbers–they’re acceptable as the titles of series, and very little else. Otherwise, they come across as pretentious and self-important, further detaching the writer from the reader.

28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XXVII

No one system will make every user happy.

Judging by the sheer number of mobile phones, third-party plugins, variations of Linux and alternatives to Internet Explorer available, it’s clear that no one system can please every user. Reading through previous entries here, I assume I’m much harder to satisfy than most others (or at least louder about it), but I’m not completely alone. Everyone has a different philosophy on the ideal user experience, and while it’s impossible to cater to the needs and desires of every last user, it is possible to allow for customization and flexible interfaces.

I use Windows XP at home, but I’ve never liked the default XP theme, with its large buttons and rounded window corners. Yes, it’s more aesthetically pleasing, but takes up a bit more real estate on the screen and demands a bit more attention that the comparatively flat look and feel of previous Windows versions. (I think of the operating system as a launcher rather than a playground–I want it to support the programs I use, but I don’t need it to blow me away with its own graphics.) Luckily for people like me, Microsoft offers a reversion to the Classic theme, which also takes less of a toll on the CPU. I’m also not a fan of animated operating systems, such as the scrolling or fading Start menu, or the moving, fading, zooming functions in Mac OSX and Windows Vista. Again, these features can be disabled for users like me, who prefer a more efficient workflow over an aesthetically impressive one.

With user diversity in mind, Apple developed their App Store to make it easy for users to customize their iPhone experience. While the operating system itself is like nothing previously on the market, they knew the full potential of their product wouldn’t be reached without allowing downloadable applications and add-ons that take advantage of the multitouch screen, accelerometer and connectivity.

Adobe applications, like Photoshop and Illustrator, start with a default, consistent shortcut scheme for their functions–Ctrl + Z will undo an action, Ctrl + W closes a document–and users may set their own shortcuts in the Preferences menu. Adobe understands that some computers, especially in studios and offices, will often have multiple users, so declaring a shortcut key doesn’t override the default setup. This way, in typical Adobe fashion, there can be several ways to achieve the same result, improving the overall experience for those who are used to a specific setup without infringing on those who prefer the default settings.

While it’s not possible to predict the demands and preferences of every user, there are a few broad categories developers can anticipate most users falling into: those who will happily use the product the way it’s intended and expect nothing more, those who will be generally happy but want a little extra in terms of personalization, and those who stubbornly stick with a product–or give up on it–because of the product’s (and the user’s) inflexibility. Unfortunately, the first camp is rarely an overwhelming majority, and the latter is largely comprised of power users who are hardly ever happy with default settings and features.

With those in the middle group, users who would like something extra to enhance their experience, who may just be waiting for the next, slightly improved model to come along, customization is the key to ensuring a more loyal user base. Even after years of constant product testing, there’s no telling what might be the next social networking phenomenon or popular time-wasting puzzle game after a product is released, so allowing future updates and downloadable content should help keep a good chunk of customers from switching to a different product or service. In the short amount of time since the iPhone was released, websites like Pandora and Twitter have become increasingly popular among users; imagine how unfashionable it would be for Apple to have included a permanent Myspace button on the bottom of the iPhone.

It’s not bad that some people are stubborn, unyielding users who have definite expectations for human-computer interaction. What’s not so good is when those people become stubborn developers and let their compulsions get in the way of the interest of the user. The best way to reach a wide audience is to understand that no one system will make everyone happy, and allow enough customization to make users feel comfortable with the experience.

28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XXVI

Punctuation should be used sparingly for efficient reading.

A lot of thought is often put into interaction design, from information hierarchy to iconography to computer feedback. Experts are hired to check every last detail of the user experience, making sure those who use a product, visit a website or subscribe to a service encounter the fewest possible problems. But all too often, one overlooked aspect lies in the content itself–not in the way information is typeset or presented on a page, but the way the copy is structured.

One reason for this oversight is the idea that textual information, although commonly the primary reason behind a design, is still thought to be separate from the design itself, akin to a beautifully garnished and decorated platter used to present a meal still in the shape of the can from which it was removed. Poorly written text will look bad no matter how much thought is given to placement, spacing and choice of typeface.

I discussed quotation marks in a previous entry, but other forms of punctuation, when used judiciously and in the proper context, can also give the viewer an immediate feeling of professionalism, subconscious as it may be. At the same time, sloppy and unnecessary punctuation can portray a more amateur feeling.

Every punctuation mark has its place within a passage of text, calling from the viewer a unique reaction based on the understanding of how that punctuation has been used in the past. Because our language is still evolving, guidelines need to be reconsidered every so often; standards that held true just a few decades ago may be considered out of date–and therefore out of touch with the audience–in today’s practices. To explain what makes one idea acceptable and another obsolete, a few real-world metaphors can be applied to punctuation.

The colon is, loosely speaking, the literary equivalent of the equal sign; what comes after the colon should equal what came before. For instance:

Pear: the greatest fruit in the world.

It was then I learned the truth: my father was a ninja.

This shows that the word or phrase on the left (pear or truth) is equal to the definition or explanation on the right, that the two mean the same thing. However, the colon should not be used in the context of a full sentence:

The pear is the greatest fruit in the world.

It was then I learned my father was a ninja.

In other cases, the colon is usually reserved for when the author has something of great importance, such as a revelation, or a list of items or names that probably wouldn’t be spoken in a casual conversation.

Think of the colon as a spotlight on stage–the really bright kind used to suddenly reveal the face of the murderer or highlight the fact that the priceless vase has been stolen. It’s something you’d take a, extra breath before continuing, either for dramatic effect or because you’ve got a lot to say. Most people wouldn’t write, “In my bag, I’ve got: a banana.” (You might if you were preparing your audience for a list of items for comic effect.) But if your bag was packed with a long list of goods, you’d be more prone to taking that breath in the middle. “In my bag, I’ve got: (breath) a banana, some rope, a lunchbox full of dog food, a protractor, some sidewalk chalk, half a peanut butter cookie and a yo-yo.” This would be the perfect time to use a colon, which tells the reader to prepare for a substantial list of items.

My friend TJ designed this college catalog, and put his name on the final page. Because he’s the only one who worked on it, his name was all alone, and the sentence didn’t need that colon, which breaks the flow of a complete sentence. Now, if he’d dropped the word by, the colon would be a more natural fit for that context (Catalog design: TJ Barlow).

If the colon is like a spotlight, the ellipsis is like a drum roll, preparing the reader to expect something important and worth waiting for. Ellipses are used to signify a pause in one’s speech, and readers will most likely imagine a dramatic pause when a series of dots is encountered. There are a few places ellipses might be called for, but because of the gap they place within a line of speech, they are often more typographically bothersome than useful. Physically three times wider than the space a period occupies, an ellipsis can interrupt the flow of text more than a writer might expect.

Another problem with ellipses is a sense of forced excitement they present, much like placing an exclamation point at the end of a sentence that doesn’t carry the giddy exuberance of a kid with a new pair of roller skates. This type of punctuation seems awkward and out of place when teamed up with sentences that just don’t call for them.

This sign warns drivers of the possibility of having their cars towed, and explicitly states who will be paying the bill, but ending the sentence with an ellipsis implies a deeper connotation or serious consequence. It’s meant to force an air of authority, the kind of threat a mother ends with “or else,” without actually saying what that else will be. But it’s stated pretty clearly here, and I can’t think of anything else that needs to be . The sentence is fairly complete (although it could use an article and an apostrophe), and nothing else really needs to be said.

There’s another punctuation mark that is slowly fading out of fashion, but it still appears from time to time: periods used in contractions and initials. My friend TJ uses periods in his own name above, and the extra dots are little more than stumbling blocks for the reader’s eyes. Many abbreviations, such as Mr, Mrs, Jr, Sr, etc (especially etc) have outgrown the need for periods; we all know what they mean without the help of added punctuation, and they often get in the way when ending a sentence with an abbreviated word–does that sentence end with the word etc. or does the dot indicate that it’s a truncated word? In the spotlight / drum roll analogy, the period used in places other than the end of a sentence could be thought of as a skipped beat during a music performance. Not jazz or improvisational music, either, a performance otherwise devoid of skipped beats.

Years ago, we stopped writing to-day and placing an apostrophe in the word ‘phone, because those words became common enough to understand without the help of added marks telling use how to interpret them. Type is meant to emulate the flow of speech, but also to present that speech in a more polished manner than we are expected to deliver in casual conversation. If anything calls for a polished, professional voice, it’s the text we provide to our customers, our market groups and our users. Any amount of text cluttered with unnecessary punctuation will lower the chance that it will be read and taken seriously.

28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XXV

Users can play their own music on their own time.

When the internet was a little younger, its destinations more foreign and its designers less aware of what they were getting into, websites were full of splash pages and blink tags and animated gifs of spinning mailboxes that linked to webmasters’ email addresses. One annoyance in particular, which still rears its head from time to time, was the embedding of audio into web pages.

A decade or so ago, before broadband overcame dialup and bandwidth was a precious commodity, websites would embed MIDI files which saved load times, but sounded a lot like a Casio keyboard playing elevator-style renditions of radio hits. As technology improved, audio files could be compressed and included on sites, loading slower, sounding flatter and skipping if the connection couldn’t keep up. It wasn’t perfect, but we finally had auditory accompaniment to our blink tags and spinning mailboxes.

Around the turn of the century, music groups began sprouting up all over cyberspace. Most bands on the radio had some sort of web presence, from an offshoot of a label’s site to their very own domain. I used to type band names into my address bar, followed by .com, and see where I ended up. A majority of the sites welcomed me by sending the band’s most recent single through my speakers, at whatever volume they had been set to. Hardly a warm welcome, especially considering some of the stuff I listened to back then. And in many cases, there was no audio navigation to be found–no Stop, no Pause, no volume control– so I was forced to either sit through the entire song, leave the site, or turn off my speakers, and my own music along with them.

The very reason I thought to visit many of these sites was because I was already a rather loyal fan, and in most cases, I already owned the music. In fact, there was a good chance I was listening to the very band whose site I was visiting, so forcing the same music through the same speakers at the same time was a bit unnecessary.

There are several ways to embed an audio clip into a block of HTML, and while today the options have been whittled down to a handful of refined, browser-friendly choices, a few years ago this wasn’t the case: designers had to choose from QuickTime, Real Audio, Windows Media Player, a bunch of third-party plugins, and even dropping entire audio files into an HTML editor and hoping visitors’ browsers understood how to handle them. We also had CD players and radios that played what we chose to hear, especially during leisure time which we spent browsing the internet. So forcing a user to listen to a song–even by a band they would probably enjoy, given their decision to visit the site in the first place–isn’t the friendliest way to welcome new visitors.

Today we have sites like PureVolume and Myspace, both aimed (at least in part) at helping bands reach a larger audience. Myspace uses Flash Player to play songs on a band’s profile page, but also lets users play music on their own pages. By default, the music starts on its own, unless a user logs in and changes the audio settings. Essentially, browsing a dozen user profiles could lead to a dozen songs playing automatically. We also have iPods, Pandora and XM radio, offering a much larger selection of music we can play at any time, and the choice to listen to music while browsing is becoming cheaper and easier. Why disturb users with something they may not want to hear at the time?

People browse websites at various times of the day, in various moods, and in various settings. Computers are used in libraries, on airplanes, and near sleeping babies. As it’s so far impossible for a computer to determine whether or not it’s a good idea to put some music on, it’s best to leave it up to the user to press Play. And a Pause button is never a bad idea either.

28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XXIV

Some conventions just aren’t worth messing with.

More often than not, it would seem that analyzing and redesigning a piece of hardware or software to increase productivity would be a good idea, especially if such changes include faster, safer, cheaper or simpler operation. A good example is Leo Beltracchi’s implementation of a graphical display system for nuclear power plants in the late 1980s, eliminating the need to frequently compare numbers to ensure the temperature of a reactor core is within a safe margin. This replaced confusing numerical data with a simple curved line portraying the temperature at which liquid inside the core begins to evaporate, and a dot representing the core’s current temperature. This system, still in use today, is no doubt responsible for a drastic improvement in modern power plant supervision, if not the prevention of fatal accidents that would have happened due to a couple easily missed equations.

Consumer products, such as cars, electronics and appliances, often receive updates when laws or demand calls for them. Airbags, scroll wheels, touchscreens, a fourth razor blade–these are all added features meant to improve some aspect of an existing product. Without improvements like these, consumers would have less reason to replace their products with new ones.

There are, of course, improvements to products that don’t necessarily boost their efficiency. For instance, the Dvorak keyboard, an alternative to the much more common QWERTY layout, shows a decided increase in performance with users who are familiar with its key placement. However, the QWERTY layout has been around for over 130 years, and most computer users have never seen a Dvorak keyboard. The QWERTY layout has become an established standard in computing, and to replace it with the Dvorak layout would not only mean somehow convincing the entire world to give up what they’ve grown to know and learn a completely new system, but the cost of replacing every keyboard with the updated layout would hardly be worth what little increase in typing speed would result in the change.

Similar attempts to update the keyboard have been made with keys other than the numbers and letters. Supposedly, these changes are meant to better the intuitive nature of the keyboard, but to a user who has spent a lifetime working with a specific layout, the outcome is just the opposite.

These six keys–Insert, Delete, Home, End, Page Up and Page Down–are grouped in this order on most modern keyboards. Because of their location relative to the arrow keys, they can easily be found without the user looking down from the screen. In fact, I use the Delete key more than I use Backspace, due solely to its location, and have become used to moving my cursor to the left of a character rather than the right before deleting it. As a user from the days of DOS, I still use the Insert key from time to time, as Copy, Cut and Paste all used the Insert key years ago, and many applications still have that option. The rest of the keys in that cluster are frequently used in navigating many types of documents and browser windows, and the wonderful thing is that I never have to look down to use them.

Here is a keyboard which breaks that established six-button group, eliminating the Insert key and rearranging the rest. Home and End are now left and right of each other, which makes sense when considering the direction a cursor moves along lines of text in a word processor, but not so much in a web browser. The Delete key, for some reason, has doubled in size, and the orientation of the group is now vertically arranged. Even if this layout might prove useful for certain users in certain applications, changing the layout of a conventional, time-tested setup only confuses the majority of users and breaks consistency with other keyboards on the market.

Function keys, used a bit like wildcards in computing, can serve a number of uses. Most of us know that F1 will bring up help files to assist us when we’re stuck, and we know just where to find the key. Packed together in groups of four, the function keys are easy to discern from one another without having to read their labels. As it turns out, four keys grouped together are easy to count internally, so users can quickly find, say, F8 without much hassle–it’s the last one on the second group of function keys.

Here’s how the other keyboard groups the function keys, in sections of three keys each. Even if this turns out to be slightly easier for users to use, the vast majority of keyboards group the keys in fours, and keyboards that break this rule are only confusing users who have grown accustomed to the norm. Even worse, users who switch keyboards often will find more difficulty using either layout smoothly. It’s hard to develop a productive subconscious pattern when you’re forced to break the pattern half the time.

On top of the different layout, the function keys on this keyboard don’t recognize commands that others do. F2 doesn’t rename files, F3 doesn’t search, Alt-F4 doesn’t close applications and F5 doesn’t refresh pages. They don’t even do what their labels say they’re supposed to, unless they’re used in Microsoft Office applications. What good is a new layout when it must be relearned and fights every convention we’ve established in the past?

Fortunately, changes like this aren’t as common as changes that actually improve on the user experience. Users are often reluctant to accept change, which is probably a good thing. Without sticking to a few consistent, global standards, we’d be reinventing the wheel with each new product we develop.

28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XXIII

Options, hints and buttons should be unique and easy to tell apart.

Some of the most successful computer applications–Microsoft Office, iTunes, Firefox, Adobe Creative Suite–are popular not only because of their abilities, but also because users can employ those abilities in a variety of ways, making functions easier to find for first-time users, and at the same time faster for seasoned users to operate without disrupting their workflow. For example, those wanting to italicize a word or phrase in a word processor might find the appropriate option after a few seconds of poking around on the taskbar, while those more used to graphical interfaces, ribbons and panels may search for the more intuitive slanted I button that indicates italic text. Finally, users with a little more experience know that pressing Ctrl + I will italicize selected text within a document. These three options reach the same conclusion in separate ways, allowing users of any background to find the option they’re looking for as painlessly as possible.

There are downsides to this desire to reach users of every possible skill level, however. One that can be fairly obvious in some programs is the clutter of repeated options in both the graphical interface and dropdown menus, which prolong the time it takes to sift through buttons and lines of text to find the right option.

A well planned application will offer hints to let the user know how to more effectively access more common options, such as saving documents and exiting the program. For example, this dropdown menu offers alternate key commands for creating a new document, opening an existing one, saving, printing and exiting the program.

Another problem occurs when dealing with complex tasks, such as configuring a document to be printed. Using a desktop printer is rarely as simple as pushing the Print button, and with page configurations, different types of papers, inks, and hardware properties, the process often includes numerous settings over multiple dialog boxes. It is important for developers to make sure these commands are unique from each other, or they might cause even more confusion for the user.

The Print dialog box in Adobe InDesign has two separate buttons labeled Setup, leading to two different places. This is especially troublesome when trying to help a user over the phone.

Even more frustrating is this secondary dialog box displaying available printers. The box itself is simply titled Print, the same as the main dialog box, but the bigger problem here is the confirmation button, also labeled Print. Clicking this button won’t start the printer, but many users, not wanting to waste a sheet of paper by prematurely starting the process, will be apprehensive about selecting this poorly labeled button. A better choice would have been OK, setting this button apart from the final Print button, and consistent with other buttons that confirm settings but aren’t known to initiate printing. This will instill confidence in users who want to know exactly when they will be telling the printer to begin.

Planning an application as in depth and useful as InDesign, with multiple levels of interaction accessible to everyone from beginners to power users, is an extraordinary feat. I don’t have many suggestions for Adobe regarding the new incarnation of InDesign, but my main gripe is this oversight with the similarly labeled buttons. With a little more testing, I feel they would have found this redundancy to be resulting in user error and frustration, and could easily fix the problem by changing a few words around, distinguishing each button from the others and improving user confidence and understanding.