Four-Letter Failure

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Tech blogger Thomas Park comments on the new ribbon application interface for Microsoft's Windows Explorer file browser. (I understand that their other applications will also have these silly, space-wasting ribbons.)

By focusing user research on low-level operations with the old system, and using that as the starting point for the redesign, you end up merely resizing, rearranging, and removing parts of the interface. You don't make the quantum leap, and you sometimes make things worse.

I'm reminded of a recent paper by Andreas Zeller, Thomas Zimmerman, and Christian Bird (the last two authors from Microsoft Research, ironically) titled Failure is a Four-Letter Word: A Satire in Empirical Research.

In the paper, the authors collect keystroke-level data in Eclipse and correlate it with programmers' errors. They find this data to be an excellent predictor, with the letters "i", "r", "o", and "p" guilty of the strongest correlations. Based on these findings, they come up with a cheeky solution for reducing programmers' errors: [a new keyboard without the offending letters].
All the telemetry data Microsoft used to guide its design decisions, and the impressive amount of effort that went into acquiring it, ended up being worse than useless due to bad analysis. (The "solution" offered in the paper is also, among other things, an amusing refutation of the idea that correlation implies causation.)

Poor thinking, at any step of the way, and even on a matter as relatively minor as the UI for one application produced by a software company can cause great damage. Here, Microsoft's reputation will suffer and its customers will be made less productive than they could have been, even if only by being distracted on a daily basis by a kludgey design or a loss of valuable screen real estate.

This example, although rather mundane, reminded me of, and helped me better appreciate the following story about philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand, related by Leonard Peikoff in his talk, "My Thirty Years with Ayn Rand:"
She knew too clearly how she had reached her ideas, why they were true, and what their opposites were doing to mankind. Nor, like Howard Roark, could she ever be tempted to betray her convictions. Since she had integrated her principles into a consistent system, she knew that to violate a single one would be to discard the totality. A Texas oil man once offered her up to a million dollars to use in spreading her philosophy, if she would only add a religious element to it to make it more popular. She threw his proposal into the wastebasket. "What would I do with his money," she asked me indignantly, "if I have to give up my mind in order to get it?" [bold added]
Ayn Rand, building on Aristotle, had created an entire philosophical system based on a realist metaphysics and a rational epistemology. To attempt to graft even one religious (i.e., arbitrary) element into it would have undermined her entire philosophy by treating the products of our imagination as if they had the same footing as evidence and logic. For the same reason that lying is a poor policy, so is treating as true the arbitrary: "Since all facts of reality are interrelated, faking one of them leads the person to fake others; ultimately, he is committed to an all-out war against reality as such."

Returning to level of the design decision, such a choice would have been like a Microsoft employee working on the new Explorer, having Park's insight about how to analyze the user data, but deciding not to speak up about it for fear of rocking the boat. In philosophy, though, either the kind of evasion needed to make such a decision, or its results will affect how one approaches problems, generally, and thus, barring a change of mind, it will manifest as similar types of error repeated over time and made across many areas of thought.

To allow even one whiff of the arbitrary into one's philosophical guidance system (or to "replace" it in a given act) defeats the entire purpose of having a philosophy, the former by systematically incorporating fantasy where evidence or logic is needed. Ayn Rand wouldn't merely have had to ignore what she knew to be true to accept this offer, she would have had to continue doing so from that day forward, even if only by not actually applying the philosophy as she would have had to begin to preach it.

Far worse than making an error is to make oneself unable to recover from one.

-- CAV


Mark Lindholm said...

Ribbons have been a huge part of Office for a while now. I love them and don't find them kludgy at all. The telemetry data appears to have assisted them in determining how to distribute commands through the ribbon, but the inclusion of the ribbon itself is obviously an attempt to formalize the new Office design through Windows itself.

Gus Van Horn said...

As someone who prefers keyboard shortcuts and plenty of vertical real estate, they'd bother me less if they could be hidden. (For all I know, maybe they can. I don't know. I fired Bill Gates back in the mid '90's and have used Linux almost exclusively since.

Mike said...

I'd love to know why Microsoft is so bound and determined to eliminate command menus. From Media Player to IE to other apps, MS consistently deprecates the full command menu and leaves a ribbon of options at the top of window. Casual users have a pile of screen cruft in the way AND power users don't have easy access to deep functions. It's lose-lose.

Compare this to OS X Lion, which maintains an exhaustive command menu at the top of the SCREEN (matching the functions of the active window) and then has just a few, simple, elegant top-of-app commands instead of a fat ribbon full of chunk. Casual users will rarely or never need to go to the command menu; power users who do use it are not inhibited from using the full range of operations the app makes available. Win-win.

Gus Van Horn said...

Regarding your question, I have the same one for computer vendors in general and smartphone vendors in particular. It's rhetorical, though: These guys are selling convenience, or at least their conception of it, and that comes at a price they dictate.