Evil Design

The Worst (and totally unnecessary) Flaw

What is the “feature”, or flaw, that you find most annoying about Windows 7?

For me, it’s when the dam thing simply crashes on you.

I sometimes use my laptop as a GPS system. Why? Because I like to have a nice big map, using up the entire 15.6 inch screen to show all the nearby roads and towns to help give me a sense of how to get there. I don’t like to use that synthesized voice that wants to tell me where to go. Sometimes it’s wrong. Sometimes I want to do a little more than just drive from A to B. I like to explore. To see what the region looks like, or at least what it’s maze of roads looks like. So I use Microsoft Streets and Trips, with a GPS sensor. I like maps.

So, here I am driving along, with my laptop on the seat next to me. And glancing over at it once in a while to see if I’m on track. Now, mind you — diverting your eyes away from the road is already dangerous enough. Ideally, the display should be right up there on the dashboard. But I digress.. Generally it works fine. A quick glance, and it helps me stay on track and not have to worry and fret about guessing which road I should be taking.

Then — suddenly this!

WTF?!!!

Now, mind you — if you’re sitting at your desk at home, quietly slurping a latte when this thing appears, no big deal. But while I’m driving? WTF!!!

BTW, there is no option to kill this. You can Postpone it, but not indefinitely. The biggest problem, is that my laptop is going to go offline for many minutes (I don’t have a SSD in this one yet) at what could be a dangerously crucial moment. This is dangerous! Microsoft does not know what we will be doing with your laptop at the moment it decides to do it’s update thingy. So this sort of thing is an absolute No-No!

And this should be a heads-up to any of you who design software, or systems, and provide it with any kind of message-box type of user interaction.

Rule Number 1: Do NOT jerk the system away from the user’s work to do your housekeeping, unless it is absolutely, definitely, essential. You do not want a user who is driving on a road at night, or flying a plane, or piloting a ship – to have to fiddle with the mouse-pad or pointer-nubby to click on the Postpone button. And then have to do it again in 10 minutes!

Microsoft Streets and Trips is Microsoft’s own product. Why can’t it detect that I have the software running. And my position is changing. Nothing should interrupt my usage of the product at this time. I am not even online: why do I give a shit about updating the software at this particular instant? I just want my tool to work for me, without distracting me from what I need to be doing.

What you (the designer of said software) should do, when you conclude it’s necessary to interrupt, is provide an opt-in message-box, that times out after so many seconds. And if it times out without the user doing anything, then it just lets the computer be, to keep doing it’s thing without interruption, until sometime later when the computer is idle and it is an appropriate time to prompt the user again.

That is a fundamental rule of design: Do not interrupt the user with your house-keeping.

Get Your Basic Operation Straight

It is my conviction, and this seems to be totally common-sense to me – that a software product should mature over time and with each succeeding version iteration. That is what I was told about, for example, IBM mainframe software: over time, it got increasingly solid. With each new version, more bugs were fixed, performance got better – enough that, if new functionality was introduced – it nonetheless was a more solid product that the version before. Shit worked.

So what is up with the Microsoft Windows design team?

We are now (as of 2012/2/4) on version 7. Windows has been out.. how long? .. since before the word “latte” was universally known here in the US. There are indeed some features that I like about it. But this thing has bugs in it’s basic operation for which there is no excuse!

For example, in Windows Explorer, nearly every time I select a folder, after a few seconds it seems to leap back to some other folder and select that. I often have to scroll down a second time and re-select the folder that I want to view, again. Why? This annoys the shit out of me.

It’s not only Microsoft, with their glaring flaws in otherwise good products like Windows, Word, Windows Media Player, and Windows Live Writer – Apple’s iTunes is so bad I still haven’t figured out how to do a totally basic operation like move an .mp3 audio file onto my iTouch so I can listen to educational audios while I’m driving. Nothing on it’s user-interface tells me clearly how to do it. Inexcusable! Especially after investing all that time to make a pretty UI. Give your product to an utter newbie (not a 13-year-old girl – they seem to already know everything!) and make careful note of what operations cause them to have to search for how to accomplish them. Then go back to the drawing-board and make those dead-simple obvious.

 

James W. Hurst

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About James W Hurst

a professional software designer since the beginning days of the desktop cptr and uC-controlled avionics, I today am focusing on C# and F# for building desktop and online applications under WPF, and Silverlight/ASP.NET along with the requisite HTML/CSS/JavaScript/Ajax for web applications. My database expertise is focused on Microsoft SQL Server and db4o, and my main area of interest is Artificial Intelligence and vision.
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