Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A user interface is like a joke. If you have to explain it, it’s not that good. (unknown)

I’ve been doing this UX thing for about 30 years now.  In the beginning, there was a lot of explaining.  Believe me, green-screen, mainframe systems needed it badly. Most of them came with a veritable library of manuals. In fact, that’s how I got my start in this business – writing paper manuals.

My next big thing, though, was online help. Now, that was a real step up from paper manuals. At the same time, though, I found there were two different styles of help – one that was really helpful and one that was basically just throwing a manual online. The helpful version made help contextual – for example, help for a particular field that was right next to that particular field, or help for a particular page that actually appeared on that page. The unhelpful version took the user to a totally separate system, where they had to browse through what was basically a table of contents, or to scan what was basically an index. 

As the industry matured and matured, moving from software to websites to apps, I noticed that things seemed to be getting simpler and simpler – and less and less in need of explanation. It appeared that we were finally and truly moving to that holy grail of “intuitive obviousness.” 

Recently, though, I’ve noticed things taking a step back, returning to the bad old days of explanation. What I’m talking about here specifically are things, which usually appear in apps, called “coachmarks.” They’re those little boxes that might appear when you first log in, with little arrows pointing to and explaining not-necessarily-totally-obvious features. 

Now, there are some good reasons for these. For one, small screens simply have a lot less space. And that means that there might not be enough room to spell everything out. We can hope that users will explore a little, but we can’t always count on it. So why not help out by exposing a few things, right?

There are, however, also some bad reasons. For example, some apps might be trying to do too many things, and simply need to be scaled back. Some might also have too heavy an emphasis on graphic design. Left to their own devices, I’ve noticed that graphic designers sometimes opt for the “cool” and “slick” over the explicit and obvious. “Affordance” probably needs to be more of a part of those designers’ vocabularies. 

This is especially a problem when design that works for the small screen is ported – pretty much without any translation – to larger and larger screens. For example, why use a “hamburger” menu when you’ve got plenty of room to actually spell it out? As Luke W (or was it Nielsen Norman?) pointed out, “It’s mobile first, but not mobile only.” But that’s a great topic for a whole other post.

It's like a mini manual!