Sunday, October 26, 2008

Why user research is a good thing

News flash:

A Facebook group formed for those opposed to the site's new design is nearing 2.7 million supporters, and the leaders organized a two-day boycott to bring their point across.

The group, called "1,000,000 against the new Facebook layout," has greatly exceeded the expectations in its title and encouraged its supporters to stay off Facebook during the weekend of Oct. 18 and Oct. 19.

…Jessica Fishbein, a high school teacher who is one of the administrators of the group with more than 2.6 million backers [says] "Facebook, which normally cared about the feedback of people, just made this decision, didn't really care what the users thought and isn't really responding to feedback," she said in an interview. "People are very upset."

Euphemistically Speaking

A quick rant: I know a couple who don't let their daughter say "What the heck?" or even "What the...?" because "you know what you're really saying is the H word." So... exclamations such as "My goodness," and so on would also be bad because they're euphemisms for "My God," am I right? What is the poor kid left with to express herself? It's not the words so much as the context they are used in that betray the euphemism. If she says "Oh my tarantula," it either makes her sound insane or like she's really stretching for a euphemism, which in fact she would be, and thus fooling no one.

So, for UI text, how bad is it for a UI designer (and I mean writers too) to use one term when both you know and I know that you're really talking about something else? Well, it just makes you sound lke a kid trying to swear without saying the H word.

Why make users stretch their brains to suss out the meaning of a term when a simple one will do?

Bentley's First Law of Label Nomenclature: Think first.

The horror! The horror!

You know, if you're going to use fancy text formatting, you should be sure you know how to code it. There is no such HTML tag as ' .

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

I Heart Commas

Here’s a delightful compendium of confusing language compounded by lack of punctuation.

If the meeting is already cancelled, how can you not cancel it?

Also, “…and close” what? Is that a transitive verb? I hope so! I shudder to think how you might close yourself. But the noun reference is confusing: close the message? Close the meeting?

At the very least, a  little punctuation wouldn’t hurt. Now it’s like the difference between

  • When meeting a bear in the woods, don’t stare them in the eye and walk away slowly.

  • and

  • When meeting a bear in the woods, don’t stare them in the eye, and walk away slowly.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Speaking of Distressing Signage

Speaking of misspellings, intentional or unintentional abbreviations, and other hindrances to quick comprehension, I got to wondering to what extent this is a modern dilemma. It turns out that the Romans commonly used abbreviations in their writings, which, I assume, would potentially include signage.

Which got me wondering if this issue is factored into the attempts to decrypt such items as the Voynich Manuscript?

While we’re on the subject, one charming site I frequent is,, which illustrates plenty of bad user experiences for your wincing pleasure, including a lot of distressing signage.

Parking sign in Assisi (Sean Bentley)

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Perils of Limited UI Real Estate

Grovery signage
I got to thinking the other day about how many grocery stores have signs that are nearly illegible. Theaters and churches, among others, also use this kind of signage, but only with grocery stores do you regularly see such blatant examples of bad spelling, truncation, run-on words, and weird abbreviations, not to mention somewhat counterproductive lack of punctuation (349 pounds of BFTOPSRLNSTK instead of $3.49 per pound).

Is it because stores don’t have the budget to afford all the requisite characters required to advertise their weekly specials?

My wife pointed out, perhaps it’s that as people speed by these signs, they cannot read a full explication, or read multiple such entries on a sign: they need a code, a shorthand, which they can more or less easily interpret at a glance as they pass. Maybe it’s like an inkblot test, you get a general sense of something being on sale. But it’s a chicken/egg question, I think: perhaps the customers have had to develop an ability to read such a code because that’s what’s provided. (This is akin to TV networks broadcasting crap because “we broadcast what people want to watch” but people watch crap because that’s all that is broadcast….)

Anyway, my wife’s idea does beg the question of why, if this code is effective, then it’s only grocery stores that use this “shorthand.” If I’m driving too fast to read “Beef Top Sirloin Steak,” wouldn’t I also be unable to read “You Can Trust a God with Nail Holes in His Hands”? (Actually spotted in Bellevue.) Wouldn’t the latter be more effective as “You Cn Trst a Gd w Nail Holes in His Hnds”?

More likely it is because the signs don’t have the space necessary to fully spell out a product. It’s a common issue in UI design: real estate constraint adversely affects the ability of the UI text to adequately convey information, thus ultimately hampering the usability of the interface. And it’s been proven that usable interfaces generate more customer goodwill, which translates into, well, filthy lucre. For a relatively limited cost of a larger sign (not that I advocate larger signage in principle) the store might eventually make a considerable profit from folks actually being able to take advantage of the advertising!

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Slacker Returns

No good excuses from being asleep at the wheel for a couple of years. But some lame ones, including having quit in 2005 my job as UI Text Editor (due to lack of passion on my employer's part). Didn't mean I stopped thinking about this stuff, but I was off doing things like traveling in Europe, lah di dah. Anyway I'm back in the professional saddle and, having done quite a bit of prowling around, have noticed that mine is essentially the only UI Text-oriented blog on the whole Internet, figgered I might as well keep it going.

So, as a thin end of the wedge, may I present a humble example of unusable UI which could have been improved immensely by a more sensible textual element.

This is a package of frozen green beans. There is a small but fairly noticeable, if one is looking for such a thing, indication of how/where to open the bag. Unfortunately, the arrow points to nothing. There is no perforated tear-line, no notch, no tearable seam. When they say "Open," what the hell do they want me to do?

So, it's not the end of the world, not even on the order of software difficulty, but it's a symptom of poor customer-centric thinking, isn't it?

So. I promise to update more regularly.

Adieu till then.