Bad User Experiences

“Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM equipment” – from Wikipedia’s Fear, uncertainty and doubt article

Ever tried searching from a big company’s web site using their own search? The closest comparison I can come up with is smearing your hands with poo and wondering why no one comes to shake hands with you. Usually the results of such shameful endeavors are either non-existent or ridiculous at best.

Recently there has been quite a bit of trouble with the hosting company that provides Sebaattori with its server framework and WordPress platform. Last week there were some 503 server errors due to broken firewall settings on the host’s part (or so they informed us). In addition, today I encountered a database connection drop when I was trying to write my post. Unfortunately it seems that cheap hosting equals problems with such simple requirements as performance, reliability and availability.

Uncertainty in dealing with IT systems is, well, one of the top sources for my daily frustration. In my case the uncertainty is not always related to my ability (nor inability) to use the system but instead to the system’s qualifications to properly serve my needs. For example, I find it very annoying having to ctrl + copy this text (that I am typing right now) every now and then to the clipboard and paste it to my favourite text editor. Why? Because I cannot trust the connection/computer/web browser combination to stay alive long enough for me to finish typing, post everything back and not lose anything while doing this.

More problems arise when multiple users are munching and lurking around in the system at the same time, looking for creative new ways to force the poor software architecture to a standstill. Multiple users tend to do their stuff at the same time, perhaps even in the same place and whilst working on the same items. From a system designer’s standpoint that is, if not the worst-case scenario, pretty close to being just that. What if the users open, modify and save one resource at the same time? There is no simple right answer to how to handle this. Should we lock the resource so that only one may write and others read? Or maybe we should do like Google Docs: allow multiple users to work on the same resource and keep all changes. In the ideal case we might not even give access to non-tech-savvy users at all (or we could remove access rights from annoying users who try to break the system’s rules).

It is really easy to spot not only badly designed and annoying software products but also systems where it seems that their basic design principles are just plain wrong. Cumbersome, counterintuitive systems (with corporate policy written all over them) make me ponder the real reasons for their seemingly meaningless existence. I highly doubt that it is in the best interests of any company to purposefully make it harder for their employees to do anything meaningful with their time at work. Despite the large amount of bureaucracy involved in (and mostly even required) keeping a company running, people should still be able to be more productive than ever before. And IT systems, especially, should be there to help management fight these problems and facilitate end user access to shared resources.

IT industry should always be based on expectations of working systems. I totally agree with that goal and it would be wonderful for it to be the status quo. As long as the system is reasonably fast, is each time available when I need it and does what I need it to do in an understandable manner, I will be fairly satisfied and I will not have much to complain about. In the end, it all comes down to some very basic questions in software development: user needs, requirements and specifications. If these can be fulfilled effectively in a manner that makes the users want to use the software, we have come a long way. Unfortunately, we are not quite there yet.

In case you are interested, try comparing any major webpage (or software suite) against Nielsen’s heuristics. The results can be quite frightening – and those are just the very basics of any user experience. Communication over the web fails far too often.

– Joona

PS. An example of a badly designed site I came across earlier today: – Helsinki WDC (World Design Capital) 2012 stamp suggestions open for voting. The page looks cool, but from a simple usability standpoint it is unbearable. The site loads the next 25 pictures (out of over 1400) each time you scroll to the end of the page with no option to load all of them at once. Of course, there is no way to search for a single suggestion. In addition, there is no opportunity to link to just one work of art (preferably with voting link). Moreover, I could not even find a link to the English version of the site. World has to stand for something in WDC, right?

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