Interface Design Blog: the good, the bad, and the utterly unusable...

Online Project Management Tool: unProducteev details make the registration process tiring

Posted on | September 21, 2010 | No Comments

One of my clients has switched to using Producteev (www.producteev.com) for its project management tasks.  So I had to set it up as well.

Over the time, I’ve used many online project management tools – including such popular ones as 37 Signal’s Basecamp and Pivotal Tracker.  But for some reason, none of them seemed to fit the bill entirely.  Pivotal, for example,  is an overkill for most tasks of a small multifunctional team.  It is designed to fit development tasks best.  And I could never get over the “story” metaphor – just doesn’t click with me.

I am just setting it up, so not too many comments on the overall usability, but the interface looks simple (yesss!) and clean enough.  I didn’t have to learn any new words yet, and things seem to be clearly labeled.  So far so good, though that can change once I actually use the tool.

However, when registering, I ended up spending a few minutes looking, of all things, for my Time Zone!  There is no indication whether any fields are required (which, IMHO, is an oversight), but either way, I didn’t want to skip this field because for a project management tool a correct timestamp is actually important.  So I click on the time zone field, and get this endless list:

Producteev - Where is my time zone?!

Producteev - Where is my time zone?!

After spending a few minutes trying to find San Francisco, I pretty much gave up and treated myself to a quick geography lesson:  looking up the exotic sounding names on the world map and dreaming up my next vacation (Rarotonga!  Pago Pago!  And I had no idea there was a place named Fakaofo!).

What’s most confusing is not just the sheer number of items on this list – but the selection.  Names of islands are mixed in with city names, time zones, and I think even some country names.  List organization by GMT plus or minus so many hours doesn’t really work.  There is seemingly no order to anything.  I first looked for San Francisco (the city), then PST (time zone), and finally, mostly by accident, found Pacific Time stuck somewhere between Gambier and Pitcairn.  I hope it’s the ‘right’ Pacific Time because there are different ones listed as well (for Tijuana, Vancouver, etc – although it’s still the same time zone).

Despite the frustrating user experience here, I would like to thank the team of Producteev for expanding my geographic horizons.  Though it does make me wonder – how often is Producteev tool used in Rarotonga?  Wouldn’t it be better to prioritize the places that are likely to have more Producteev users?

Informational Icon Overload

Posted on | September 9, 2010 | No Comments

Traveling through countless world airports, it’s interesting to see how directional signs are used.  International airports rely heavily on iconography because of the language variable.  Airport’s target users – the passengers –  may not speak the language of the country of any given airport (whether they are visitors or are in transit).  Basic English signs such as Exit, No Exit, Baggage, etc. are well-recognized, but should a sign get more specific, there is still a chance that even an English word won’t be understood.

So using clear directional and informational icons is really really important in places like that.

Just this past July, while at the Ferihegy International Airport in Budapest, I found myself creating a bottleneck at the escalator, trying to understand all the warning icons posted right at the entrance:

Informational Icons - Ferihegy Int'l Airport Budapest

Informational Icons - Ferihegy Int'l Airport Budapest. What dangers await the passengers on this escalator journey??

I did ride that escalator twice but both times didn’t get enough time to digest even a third of these icons. All kinds of terrible dangers were waiting for me on this short escalator ride, and I may have broken a few escalator laws – I will never know.

This experience was a reminder that icons should be used sparingly, only when needed, and unless an icon’s meaning is absolutely clear to the test audience, a text label should accompany it.  This applies not just to the airports and other physical environments, but websites, mobile devices and applications.

Oldie but oh-so-goodie – Lavender Concept Phone Design

Posted on | June 9, 2010 | No Comments

I had been spoiled designing for iPhone and some of the nicer Android mobile phones, but recently I had to do a few projects on simpler, smaller, much less elegant devices running J2ME.  It got me thinkig of that thin line that separates the beautiful, slick devices from the ones that lack the ‘wow’ factor completely and would be only bought based on their discounted pricing.

Being a designer myself, I would definitely pay the premium (within reason) for a mobile phone, just to have that feeling every time I pull it out of my bag or pocket that I am holding a highly functional and usable yet beautiful product, a culmination of hard work and talent on behalf of both engineers and designers.

I looked again at the concept Lavender phone from a young designer named Andrew Kim that made a splash some time ago:

Lavender Concept Phone - Andrew Kim

Lavender Concept Phone - Andrew Kim

Clearly, the perfume functionality is very questionable, and functionality is not worked out in detail, but I just love the overall feeling of completeness of this phone.  Unlike many phones on the market, it boasts a beautiful cohesive design, where everything is just where it should be.  Though, of course, it is much easier to achieve the cohesiveness in concept products than in production models.

Designers Needed

Posted on | May 1, 2010 | No Comments

I went to the first TEDx at Berkeley last weekend.  It was an exciting and well organized event, very “Berkeley” in spirit, as my former coworker at Life360 (a Berkeley Incubator startup), and a Berkeley graduate, described it.  The event brought people of various disciplines together, but the underlying theme that united all speakers was ‘Doing the unprecedented’.  Speakers ranged from underwater photography guru Eric Cheng (www.wetpixel.com) to UC Berkley Men’s Octet… Very fun.

One talk that stood out for myself was Fred Dust’s (Partner at IDEO) discussion titled “Designers Needed”.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the presentation anywhere online to repost, but the idea was simple:  much design improvement can be done in all areas of our lives, and there aren’t enough designers to take on these jobs.  Solution:  by applying a few most important design principles, anyone can make good design decisions.

I cannot agree more.

Many developers and early stage entrepreneurs, given the lack of funding, take the first stab at design of their websites and apps.  Later on, they often bring in professional designers who end up taking apart V1 and redoing everything entirely.  A lot of time and money could be saved by applying a few basic principles of good design at the beginning.  Putting effort into understanding what drives your users, practicing empathy for your company’s customers really pays off in the end.

Playdate with iPad

Posted on | April 8, 2010 | No Comments

I finally made it over to the Apple Store today to play with the iPad.  While handling it, like most other devices that come out of Apple, is pure pleasure, I still won’t buy it.  Here is why:

1) I don’t spend a lot of time traveling on planes and trains
2) I don’t have young children
3) I am not much into games
4) I already have a small laptop and an iPhone.

If you don’t see yourself in any of the use cases listed above, then you are better off saving your hard-earned $500.

San Francisco Apple store has 2 large tables with 10 iPads on each. Most people start by checking the utility/productivity features (Address Book, Email) and then quickly move onto video, books, movies and games.  Especially movies and games.

Frankly, I am a bit puzzled by this device.  It’s not a replacement for a laptop, nor for your iPhone or even your iPod (too big to drag around).  It’s sort of… in between.  The problem is, unless you are sitting on a plane, you probably don’t need an in-between solution.  It lacks important features like a camera, for example.  It’s not very good for doing a lot of typing (better than on iPhone but still awkward and not nearly as good as using a physical keyboard).  It doesn’t tilt up.  The list goes on.

It didn’t help that I got stuck while using a keyboard on iPad.  iPhone conveniently highlights the main action button once you start typing. As a normal lazy person who doesn’t want to think much, I now learned to trust iPhone to let me know what I need to tap to enter the text or prompt the most likely next action.  iPad doesn’t highlight the most likely to tap button – and it took me a few hits on ‘delete’ button (back arrow with x), the closest and brightest one, before I found “Go”.  Hmmm…

iPad keyboard

"Go" button on iPad is hard to find

That said, I do think that this device will be a  hit with preschoolers and elementary-middle school children.  It makes sense to them. It can make reading interactive, it can make education more fun.  “Poking” the screen and using gestures is natural for kids, and for that, if I was a parent, I would have gotten an iPad.

I am already being asked to re-design existing apps for iPad, and I encourage my clients to really think whether their iPhone apps will get any use on an iPad.  Upon some reflection, the answer is often ‘No’, or ‘Not yet’ for utility, productivity, and many lifestyle apps.

Google Search and OXO Grip

Posted on | April 7, 2010 | No Comments

Much of the discussion on the CHI-KIDS LinkedIn group has been about how kids search for things on the web.  Within the group, rumors have surfaced that there is a special lab at Google that is working on developing better ways to search.  I designed multiple web and mobile educational apps for children and have some familiarity with this user group, so that got me intrigued, and I did some of my own digging.

A NYT article from December 2009 summarizes Google’s latest findings:

– Pre-teen kids are not well-versed with multi-step keyword searches.  Given a task to find out, say, when Lincoln was born, they would often try to type in the entire question into the search box
– Related searches seem to resonate with kids very well (makes perfect sense since it provides a degree of interactive guidance to the kids who have harder time resolving a situation when they are stuck)
– Visual search (both images and videos) is much more effective and intuitive for kids.  Interestingly, since “Bing used more imagery than other search engines, it attracted more children. Microsoft says Bing’s audience of 2- to 17-year-olds has grown 76 percent since May”.
– Kids are likely to benefit greatly from good voice-enabled search solutions

While the results of these studies are certainly useful, they are not really revolutionary by themselves – at least for anyone who worked on apps for kids (or simply has kids). It makes sense that kids are looking for visually informative, intuitive ways to communicate with search engines in a human way.

What I thought was more interesting is that Google is seemingly not working on any specialized solution for kids. Instead, Google recognized that what kids want is, to some extent, what everyone wants.  Kids naturally follow the most intuitive, straightforward and “human” interaction patterns, such as asking a question when they need information.  Of course, then we grow up and learn all those synthetic keyword search strategies and other tricks – in other words, we give up our natural way of doing things in order to communicate with computers.  But once technology catches up, we are happy to go back to our natural ways for a superior user experience, given such option. Google smartly recognized that creating a search experience that would work for kids would also work for adults.

Roll the tape back to the late 80s.  The founder of a small housewares company observed that elderly people with diminished dexterity due to arthritis and other progressive issues had troubles gripping narrow sleek handles of kitchen utensils.  Sam Farber developed his line of OXO Grip kitchenwares with thick, non-slip, rubbery handles specifically for the aging segment of the market, but as soon as the product went to market, it became a hit with everyone – not just the elderly!  Everyone recognized a superior, more usable product – even people that could manage the thin handles with no pain preferred the comfortable, secure feel of a thick, rubbery (yet stylish) one.

These are just 2 examples from 2 very different industries.  Often people that are  in charge of designing products (or interfaces) have learned the rules of the game way too well for their own good.  It’s hard to get out of that mental shell and look for really intuitive, natural patterns.  Looking to the ‘bookend’ user groups, such as children, or elderly people, or perhaps another user group that falls out of the mainstream for clues can be quite enlightening.  Designing for marginal groups may often result in a better solution for all.

For now, we do know that Google has already extended the length of its search field which can accommodate longer queries and questions.  What’s next?

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