Posts Tagged 'productivity'

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.

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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 XVI

Screen edges and corners can drastically improve functionality.

Whenever I seem to lose track of my cursor–something that happens fairly often when using Photoshop, despite how much work Adobe has put into making the cursor stand out from the image behind it–I know I can swipe the mouse into a corner of the screen, where it will stay (unless I’ve got a dual-screen setup), and I’ll have my bearings once again. The corners of the screen give a little solace to those who lose sight of their cursors now and then, and provide a welcome alternative to shaking the mouse back and forth. If a parked cursor is hard to locate, a cursor wildly dashing left and right isn’t much more helpful.

Many elements of human-computer interaction also involve the edges and corners of a display. OSX’s application dock, the Windows Start button, and program-specific toolbars are often located along the edges of the display and nestled in the corners, making them easier to locate, and supposedly, easier to use.

The great thing about these locations is they demand very little attention from a user’s eyes, minimizing the delay in workflow and giving the user less to think about. In a typical setup, moving a mouse more than a couple inches in any direction will bring the cursor to the limit of the screen, no matter where it starts from.

There are cases, however, when a button is placed near an edge or corner, but doesn’t recognize a click unless it occurs a few pixels away from the outside of the screen. This still makes them easy enough to find, but miss out on a critical possibility to truly speed up the user’s actions.

This is the lower left corner of my screen. The Start button won’t activate unless my cursor is at least four pixels up from the bottom of the screen, or two pixels right from the left. Because of this, I can’t simply sweep my mouse down and left, and expect the Start menu to open when I click. I have to move away from the corner, but not so much as to pass the entire button. This takes a lot more of my attention than placing the hit area in the very corner.

Along the edge of the screen are my quick launch icons and buttons to recall all of my opened applications. As with the Start button, none of them are actually along the lower edge, but four pixels above it, taking considerably more effort to click on them.

Thankfully, Windows XP fixed this oversight, but being a fan of the original Start menu and organization, I always use Classic View, which doesn’t include that extra functionality. I have used systems with which Classic View does a better job or recognizing edge and corner clicks, but with all the different versions of Windows out there, and accounting for upgrades and service pack installations, I can’t recollect which versions behave in which way.

Many applications, such as Photoshop, override Windows blue title bar feature (something I’m not too happy about, but I’ll discuss that next) and place their toolbars and other interface components along the top edge of the screen. Again, these items aren’t actually placed against the very edge, but rather seven pixels lower.

This image shows all four corners of the screen using Adobe Lightroom with Windows XP’s standard Start menu. As with Photoshop’s toolbars, none of these are accessible from the very edge, nor are the program menu in the upper left or resize buttons in the upper right. It should be noted that Windows XP’s standard resize buttons, generally applied to all programs, do react to the very edge and corners.

Here, the Start menu and program bar buttons all accept edge and corner clicks, but in the lower right corner, the icons in the system tray and the clock all require the mouse to move away from the edges to work.

Mac OSX takes the idea of screen corners to a fuller extent, launching applications, organizational tools and screen savers when the user stows the cursor in a corner for a second. Many laptop touchpads and PDA screens utilize corners for user-defined applications and options. These make launching common programs much faster and require less interruption to a user’s thought process, adding to the experience, while those just a few pixels off slowly chip away at it.

Until everyone has a touch-enabled screen on their desk, the edges and corners of the screen are the closet thing to tactile response a monitor can provide, as users can safely assume the limitations of the screen will catch the cursor and hold it there for them. Placing buttons along the edges and in corners, rather than just short of each, will make this understanding work in the users’ favor.

28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XI

Avoid forcing users to click more than they really have to.

Mouse clicks demand very little strength. Children can learn to use a mouse at a very young age, and rarely does the pressing of the button cause much of a problem. More often, it’s securing the location of the cursor while the click takes place.

Despite what little effort a user must put into each click, it’s the more fine-tuned practice of positioning the cursor to prepare for the click that causes a bit more frustration. With many interfaces, users must center the cursor over a tiny cluster of pixels–and keep it there until the click is complete–to achieve the desired result. In some cases, shifting even one pixel in any direction between the downward and upward clicks will nullify the action, often with no visual indication that the click didn’t register, resulting in a user waiting for something to happen, until it’s realized that something went wrong. And many users, afflicted by memories of slowed and frozen computers due to multiple instances of a single program, will wait until they’re absolutely certain the computer didn’t catch a click before they try it a again.

There are a couple different shutdown menus used in different versions of Windows. An earlier dialog box, also used in Windows 98 and 2000 if I recall correctly, uses a dropdown box to give the user a list of shutdown and logoff options:

With a dropdown menu such as this, only the selected option is visible, so a user would have to click on the narrow box just to get a glimpse of the other possibilities. (There are dropdown menus which use rollovers to invoke the drop, but this isn’t one of them.)

After the first click, the user may then find and select the desired action, again zeroing in on a rather small area–13 pixels high–to make the appropriate selection. Keep in mind that nothing is happening with the rest of the screen–in fact, the rest of the screen fades to gray as this dialog box is open. At no other time in the entire Windows environment does this happen. All that space to offer a handful of options, and each one is limited to a hit area 13 pixels in height.

Later on, Microsoft divided the shutdown and logoff features into two different boxes, and revamped the design of each.

The newer option box features all three choices clearly visible at all times, and offers larger buttons with both English and iconographic hints for each option. It may have eliminated the need for only one extra click, but each click scratched from a procedure also removes the need to center the cursor over a small portion of the screen.

When Adobe first introduced Creative Suite, a more integrated approach to their design applications, I couldn’t get over a trivial but annoying new element to Photoshop’s Layers panel.

I the previous version, Photoshop 7, clicking once on the arrow next to the Opacity or Fill percentage dropped down a slider which, on the same click, could be adjusted until the user released the button. The two-click method–one to drop the slider down and one to position the arrow–worked just as well.

In the next three revisions of Photoshop, one click no longer did the job. The user had to click once to show the slider, then click again to move the arrow left and right. I don’t know of any other people this bothered, but somebody at Adobe had to program that functionality into the program, and must have consciously chosen not to allow a one-click opacity change. (There actually is another way to do it, by clicking and holding the word Opacity or Fill, not the numbers or arrow, which adjusts the percentage without a visible slider, but that’s not intuitive in the least–in fact, I hadn’t heard of the trick until somebody stumbled upon it on accident and passed the word onto me.)

Finally, with the release of Creative Suite 4, my gripe has been answered. Again, I don’t know if this bothered anyone other than myself, but until CS4, Adobe had chosen to diminish the functionality out of their Layers panel, which only slows the editing process. I’m glad they eventually decided to add that functionality back into their product.

Withholding a list of options from a user can serve many purposes: it clears up space on the screen, it avoids confusion by clearly displaying selected options, and it adds a dynamic element to a series of choices, something much more difficult to do on a conventional paper form. There are several ways to display these hidden objects when the need arises, and there isn’t one right way to go about it in every scenario.

It should be noted that the double controlled click explained above–where both clicks must click on a different point to perform a task–is different than the double click, which only requires one placement of the mouse. Double-clicking is no more taxing on the user than single click, which is why so many users click twice on accident when only one is needed.

Eliminating redundant mouse clicks is a small but important step in increasing user productivity, especially when operations that would require multiple clicks are performed over and over. Most users likely won’t consciously notice when a click is unnecessary, but many will notice the increase in performance when the problem is recognized and addressed. And hopefully a few will even thank you for it, or at least mention it in a blog post.