A Lesson from Bad Design

Monday, April 04, 2011

As I noted briefly last week, I've been upgrading computer operating systems lately. I finally got around to my netbook yesterday, putting it off for next-to-last since I knew it would be the next-to-hardest upgrade. Part of the difficulty comes from the fact that some of the peculiarities of netbooks (e.g., small screen size, unusual components, and the need to watch power wastage) preclude simply slapping an unmodified desktop operating system on them.

I had been mostly satisfied with Eeebuntu, but that software project forked (I think) into two projects, neither of which I could use. One fork, Aurora, wasn't even available for download, and the other fork, Easy Peasy, did not correctly see the size of my solid state "hard drive" or successfully install. (And, if what I later found was correct, it turned out to have been built on an even more obsolete version of Ubuntu than I'd been running, anyway. "Success" would have defeated the whole purpose of this exercise!) Wanting something based on Ubuntu for the sake of simplicity, I quickly found something called "Ubuntu Netbook Edition" (aka Ubuntu Netbook Remix). "Good," I thought. "It's Ubuntu and this project is backed by Canonical, so I won't get stranded again."

I like it for the most part, but its default interface has a flaw that I find incredible for an operating system supposedly tailor-made for a device with a small screen: See that launcher on the screen shot at the right? (HT: The K-12 Open Source Classroom) You can't hide it!

It's called "Unity" and I understand that it will be hide-able in later editions of the software, including the release due at the end of this month. But still: It boggles my mind that one of the distinguishing features of the default user interface for software designed specifically for a device that has a small screen to begin with ... is that it wastes some of that space! If you have a small netbook, as I do, but aren't accustomed to straightening out problems like this, you will quickly become frustrated with this and probably switch to something else. Thus, given how hungry for new market share Linux distributors are, I find this decision doubly baffling. (Way to make Windows XP look good, guys!)

I have no use for a launcher like Unity, so my solution so far has simply been to log in to the desktop interface. (The option doesn't show up until you tab into the password space as you log in, but the change will persist from session to session once made.) The disadvantage to this is that you do lose some of the vertical space the default interface buys, but if you have a narrow screen, you will be glad you did this.

This waste of space is a kind of problem I repeatedly see, mainly in computer software, but also on other products. For example, my cell phone opens like a clam shell, and yet has buttons I never use on its edges that are almost impossible not to touch every time one opens it, and that often lead to one accidentally recording a voice memo. I frequently wonder whether anyone ever bothers to use such things before offering them to the public.

It's as if somewhere in the design chain, someone with lots of clout or persuasiveness became fixated on something he deemed clever, and got his way, the whole purpose of the project be damned. Usually, one can't stop products, or projects one isn't closely involved with from making such glaring errors, but one can learn from them. What are we trying to do? Are we getting in our own way? These are questions I wished someone on the UNR team had asked (or had asked more forcefully) about Unity (which is also sluggish and which I have seen described as "buggy").

This kind of error can drive me batty if I let it. From now on, I think I'll try to harness this irritation: I will use it to remind myself to ask those very questions of myself.

----- In Other News -----

Following on the main post about Ubuntu Netbook Edition, here's a post I'll re-visit later: "13 Ways To Customize Ubuntu Netbook Remix For Better Usability." I'm most interested in the problems that motivate #4 and #13.

There's a very interesting post over at Instapundit on why Americans distrust intellectuals. In the past, I've touched on conservative attacks on intellectuals as such, and looked at a scientist who studies issues pertinent to the kind of flip-flopping scientific advice that makes so many people skeptical of scientists.

I'm proud to say that I've long been resistant to Item #9 ("Free!") on this list of ten costly cognitive biases. Back in college, I quickly turned down a friend's offer of a car for free when I realized I was too poor to pay for its use and upkeep.

Feast your eyes on these stunning aerial photographs of Dutch tulip fields. (HT: John Cook)


Vladimir said...

An excellent point about seemingly inexplicable design flaws. My personal pet design peeve? Commercial door handles.

It simply amazes me that in all the decades, centuries in which commercial doors have been designed, so many of them today are made with seemingly absolutely no thought to how they are actually used.

You know the drill. You walk up to the door, see a protruding handle that just screams to you "PULL ME!" and on pulling, you suddenly realize the door can't be pulled, and must be pushed. If you're lucky there also might be an added "PULL" sign near the handle for added embarrassment as you yank futilely at it.

Seriously, any door which requires a sign saying "PUSH" or "PULL" has been improperly designed. There should be no ambiguity. A flat metal plate against the door or latching press-bar instantly tells you that the door requires pushing, and also tells you which way it opens. A U-shaped handle, knob, or grasping protrusion is instantly read as "pull."

This seems easy enough to me, at least. But in reality? It seems thoughtless design, or worse, form over function, rules the day in matters concerning most doors.

Gus Van Horn said...

I think you hit the nail on the head when you said, "so many of them today are made with seemingly absolutely no thought to how they are actually used."

Many people do things either (a) because that's how they've always been done (as in your door handles) or (b) because that's how everyone seems to think they should be done (as in using an obtrusive row of big, shiny buttons to start computer programs). In each case, you have a failure to question tradition or conformity, coupled with a failure to check one's ideas against reality.

It doesn't help matters when most of the people in a market also fail to give such matters much thought. Case in point: It seemed like people who did NOT like "Unity" were in the minority when I realized I couldn't hide it and started looking for a workaround.

Gus Van Horn said...

Oh, yes. I forgot. Thanks for bringing up doors! This has been valuable to me for two reasons:

(1) You helped me understand better how this sort of mistake is made. (I am looking at a similar issue away from the blog.)

(2) You gave me a much more plentiful source of inspiration, as it were, to remind myself to not make this same kind of error.

And one more thing while I'm here, regarding my being in the minority on Ubuntu forums: That fact has to be interpreted in the context of "Who cares enough to say something good or bad about the software?" Most of these were people who already like Linux. People who got hacked off and left will be impossible to see in such a sample.

kelleyn said...

What Vladimir was discussing with respect to the doors is sometimes known as affordance theory. As with design in general, engineers often fail to understand it or take it into account (or, as the case may be, to communicate effectively with the design team) because they're focused on the technical aspects of the artifact they're building. The rush to market only makes things worse. The eleventh hour is prime time for crazy oversights and kludges, because of the confusion involved in bringing things together at the last minute, and because of the need to prioritize ruthlessly when a deadline is looming.

I like your mention of letting others' errors inspire your self awareness. I learned to stay calm while coding from the snarky, nihilistic comments left in some utility code I forked by the rock star hacker who wrote it. They were so offensive to me that I wondered what his mental state was, and I only had to catch myself doing the same thing once to see it. Now those comments are my visual trigger for remembering what working myself into a lather feels like and how it happens.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for introducing me to the notion of "affordance." I hadn't encountered the term before.

Your other comments remind me of a rule of thumb I have for myself: "Don't do things you find irritating when others do them." The rule sounds easy, but it can often be hard to detect one's own errors, but it can indeed help one (fully) realize what one is doing to be on the receiving end of something like those offensive code comments you mentioned.

Steve D said...

Another example--the new Microsoft "ribbon" that uses an inch of vertical real estate on screens that are getting shorter and shorter (relative to their width, which is increasing). To say nothing of the fact that it's impossible to find anything on it without significant re-training. If you are trying to edit a Word document you need as much vertical real estate as possible to see as much of the document as possible--more width doesn't help! Yet the ribbon takes away _vertical_ space.

I'll add to your gripe about the cell phones. I am constantly accidentally triggering my phone's "voice command" mode due to those damn buttons on the sides, and there is no voice command to exit voice command mode (such as, perhaps, "f*** off!" or "shut the f*** up!") so when the phone suddenly starts saying "please say a command" I need to resist the temptation to silence it with a rock or hammer and instead open the phone up and hit the red button... but be careful not to turn the phone off!

Gus Van Horn said...


You may find the customer research Microsoft used to make similar stupid changed to IE for Windows 8 to be amusing, then.

Oh, and their new -x (docx, pptx, etc.) file formats are a nightmare. I recently had to work with a docx, and it rendered three different ways on three different computers running Windows that I have access to, using MS Word.

I fired Bill Gates back in the '90's and went to Linux (except when I simply can't avoid it, which is always work-related). Every new Windows OS is supposed to be significantly better, but I find that they're always even worse.

I ended up getting a new Android phone, which, fortunately, does not have my old problem or yours.