02 September 2008

Application Usability and the JFDI Button

It is strange how we, as software developers, get caught up in using conventions in applications that seem to be designed merely to irritate the users. Why do we do it? I think that it is because we tend to think that whatever Microsoft does is best practice.

One of the worst habits is to have unnecessary pop-ups and dialog-boxes. Vista is horrible in pursuing this vice. Even in response to the seemingly most straightforward of request for action, it apparently cannot resist subjecting the user to an onslaught of silly, nannying dialog boxes. “Are you sure you want to do xxx?” Yes…Click. “This requires your authority to yyy?” YES, I know…Click. “You are about to zzzz, click OK to Confirm” Yes, Yes, YES!!! For goodness sake.


The worst of these dialog boxes pop up after a short delay, usually at the beginning of a long copying job, and just after one has nipped off to the pub for lunchtime refreshment. One returns an hour later only to find that the process hasn’t even started and instead the dreaded “Are you sure you wish to overwrite xxxx?” dialog box is gazing limply at you from the screen.


Phil Factor suggested to me that every application or operating system should have a JFDI button next to the ‘OK’ and ‘Cancel’ button, meaning ‘Just Flaming Do It!’…or words to that effect. This button can be clicked aggressively, and would force Windows to bypass any further wearying questions that it might have liked to ask you before actually doing the FO (Flamingly Obvious). The forceful punching of the JFDI button should be accompanied by a new Windows sound; perhaps a sharp slap followed by a squeak would be appropriate.


Probably the most ubiquitous and grisly example of this excessive nannying is the “cute” help feature. It is bad enough to have a ‘Welcome to xxxxx’ message from an inanimate box. Surely there is no-one out there who actively enjoys being given unhelpful advice by an animated paper-clip or cartoon dog? Mercifully its influence seems to be diminished slightly nowadays, but there are still numerous third-party applications that can’t seem to resist the allure of the playful animation. They are great for presentations (well, actually, great is overstating it) but awful in software one has to use as part of one’s everyday work, where their appeal rating reaches zero after about day 2 of use.


I loathe familiarity from a machine. I’m faintly irritated by talk of ‘My this’ or ‘My that’. I openly flinch when my operating system tries to engage me in conversation. Just do what it is I’m asking you to do….now!


Perversely, of course, at times when you actually could do with a hint or pointer, the nannying application that seconds earlier was testing your patience to its very limit with inane, pointless questions, suddenly becomes resolutely tight-lipped. This practice is chiefly exemplified by the “options” screens in many applications. Half the options are grayed out including, inevitably, the option that you want to set. Why? Who knows? There is usually no help text, or tooltips. The application isn’t going to give up the secret of why those options are grayed out, or what you have to do in order to get to the option.


Amnesia is another Microsoft affliction that seems to have caught on. If you always store your documents in a particular path, why continue to insist on defaulting to ‘My Documents’. If you always change the ‘open’ dialog box to reveal details, why always revert to icons?


Usability isn’t a new science. The man-machine interface has been studied since the creation of the first Visual Display Unit. Why then are such elementary mistakes made? Why are there so many applications that, far from helping the user, seem intent on actively inducing bad temper?


We propose to compile a list if the very worst irritations and quirks that Simple-Talk readers have discovered in Microsoft or third party software. Our hope is that this list of shame gets pinned up on company notice-boards around the world. It will certainly be going up on ours, and we’d love to hear your nominations!


There will be a $50 Amazon gift voucher for the best nomination and three runners-up prizes of the much-coveted Simple-Talk gift bag, so add your suggestions as a comment to this blog (you will need to be signed in)!





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Tony Davis is an Editor with Red Gate Software, based in Cambridge (UK), specializing in databases, and especially SQL Server. He edits articles and writes editorials for both the Simple-talk.com and SQLServerCentral.com websites and newsletters, with a combined audience of over 1.5 million subscribers. You can sample his short-form writing at either his Simple-Talk.com blog or his SQLServerCentral.com author page.

As the editor behind most of the SQL Server books published by Red Gate, he spends much of his time helping others express what they know about SQL Server. He is also the lead author of the book, SQL Server Transaction Log Management.

In his spare time, he enjoys running, football, contemporary fiction and real ale.

View all articles by Tony Davis