Thursday, March 08, 2012


For what it's worth, I not only applied a new template to the site but cleaned out the list of UX links and added few new ones, including a link to my new editing/writing consultancy, No Nonsense.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Marketers vs. My Mother

I trust I am not alone in noticing, and detesting, the preponderance of advertising that has, in the last few years, begun to appear in all sorts of places one might not expect it, much less desire it.

Billboards that cover up bus windows... Big ol' text-based ads that have replaced the once pictorial bottom half of the newspaper TV section... The front page of the newspaper replaced with a full-page ad! An ad plastered on the cover of the phone book, for crying out loud...

And on envelopes. I mean, on envelopes that contain something other than more advertising. Like bills. Take Comcast, for example (which has, for some inexplicable reason, exchanged for another "word" that doesn't even make sense, Xfinity, but I'll let that go for now).

My elderly mother recently discovered (with my sleuthing) that her Comcast cable TV was shut off because she (that is, I) hadn't paid her bill in three months. My theory: the envelope was so covered in unnecessary advertising that it no longer looked like a bill — it looked like, well, an ad! And thus it got recycled.

I mean, she already subscribes to cable, why should she need to see more ads? Oh, I know, it's Capitalism at its best. But she got whacked with suspension of service AND a late fee because of, essentially, the bad design of the envelope. Oh, and Comcast's well known greed.

Bentley's Rule of Singularity of Purpose: If you want the user to complete Task A, don't throw them off track by a big gaudy 'Task B' label (e.g., the ad) that has nothing to do with the real controls (e.g., the bill payment stub). There are places where advertising simply is not necessary, much less appropriate.

This kind of bait and switch happens constantly on web sites, where you click one thing, thinking it's another, simply because it's big and bright and flashing at you. Or, more to the point, you don't click what you ought to click, because it looks like — or is totally overshadowed by — spam.

Do we really, really, have to be bombarded with marketing during every miniscule action, every place we happen to cast our eyes? Does anyone — and I even mean the companies these ads represent! — really, really benefit from constant advertising? There needs to be some downtime for the user, some time to reflect, to — let's go out on a limb here — to use our minds!

I stopped watching TV several years ago because the advertising was simply unbearable. Maybe I'm just neurotically sensitive, but I like to immerse myself in what I'm doing, whether it's reading, watching a film, talking to someone... I don't want to be interrupted every 30 seconds. My kids are grown up and I don't have to endure that any more, thanks very much, I paid my dues!

And for those folks who have a hard time figuring out reality in the first place, such as my mom, can we just give them a break and stop polluting the message? A bill should be a bill. An ad should be an ad.

One place not to present a swanky existential conundrum

In other news, I just had lunch at a relatively new restaurant in town. While the décor is more glam-hotel than hipster, it has definitely seen the efforts of a determined designer striving for, I don’t know what – friendly chic? At any rate, my UX radar bleeped loudly only at the point when I attempted to find the restroom.

Painted vertically on the wall in "cool" but unnecessarily industrial lowercase font were the necessary ‘men’ and ‘women’ — but there were no doors! Beside the ‘men’ was an alcove that looked as if a door ought to be there, but there was only a padded leatherette, nearly floor-to-ceiling, rhomboidal panel. Didn't look like a door, but I gave the wall a light shove just in case and, not surprisingly, nothing happened. I moved on down the hall, thinking perhaps... but no, here was ‘women’ with a similar situation. No handles, no further signage, nothing that actually looked like a door. At this point another male customer came along and blithely pushed open the ‘men’ wall and entered. Aha. I had not pushed the correct side of the wall.

I wondered why they’d designed the restooms as if they were meant to hide Anne Frank.

Forgive me, but it seems to me that a restroom is one of those items that above all else ought to be totally accessible and user-friendly. I have ranted previously on this blog (otherwise I would again here, since I ran into the same problem today) about “automatic” fixtures that don’t work as expected and have no instructions. But all that is moot if the person-taken-short in question can’t even figure out where the restroom is, or how to enter it.

Bentley's Principle of Control Visibility: Labels (‘men’) are good, but controls (a doorknob or even an indication of where to push — or pull!) are pretty dang necessary and should not be hidden or designed right out of usability.

There are a number of perfectly good more or less traditional ways of signifying a restroom. A place to pee ought not to present a swanky existential conundrum.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Customer Rightness Dept.

Ahem. Well, it has, again, been unconscionably long since my last post. A case of feast/famine, either I was too busy to have time for blogging or, as of late, not busy at all, hence having little in the way of au courant topics to put down. The latter situation is because I left my job as user-experience writer at Microsoft. A fascinating story in itself no doubt but of little pertinence to UI text in particular.

Anyway, I have now gotten the ball rolling as a “consultant,” that dreaded and vague term known to all refugees from the world of corporate enslavement. And now at last I seem to have attained that optimum state where I have just barely enough work to provide me with blogfodder – there’s a neologism for ye – (although let’s not talk about “income” shall we?) and still plenty of time on my hands (metaphorically red-ink-smeared as they may be) to actually “reify it” “in print,” if I may use those hoity-toity terms.

My first foray into gun-for-hire “content consulting” (also don’t get me started on the notion of “content”) has dosed me with water perhaps not icy, but enough to cool my usually hot user-experience jets. I was asked to write – well, create, shall we say – web content for a local budding entrepreneur. Oh boy, I thought – UI text, my meat and taters!

Now, I’m pretty generous in my definition of what UI text is. In this case, the “web page content” was not articles, but more or less marketing hype (bane of my existence). But at least there wasn’t much of it. It was in fact brief enough that it served essentially as explanatory or informational text, much the way a block of text in a dialog box or splash screen might detail the purpose and functionality of an app, or what to expect from a set of options. In this case the site users were similarly being told what this company was going to do for them, what expectations to have when calling the number.

My client said the three pages needed to be based closely on the pages of a competitor’s site, so there was just as much if not more editing than writing involved. When I looked at the other site, it was plain to see a couple of things: first off, English was not the first language of that site’s writer, and second, he or she had had certain ideas about how to use SEO. Basically their plan was, the more you use a key phrase, the better, in terms of getting your page viewed by the maximum number of punters.

I’ll say right now that I’m no SEO expert. (I’m assuming there a still a few people on the planet who don’t know that stands for “search engine optimization.”) But a quick Google informed me that the old notion of stuffing your website with keywords was not effective. The latest search algorithms are more sophisticated. So I plunged ahead following my better instincts, trimmed out the triple redundancies, improved the grammar and spelling, and rewrote to avoid plagiarism.

I wound up with three concise, friendly, informative pages. The trifecta of UI text, as far as I’m concerned. What I’ve been trained for ten years to regard as the Holy Grail of User Experience. While proudly showing my client my draft I also pointed out the well known truth that people simply do not read big blocks of web text. No one visiting his site would have to unnecessarily wade through long gray paragraphs, reading and rereading ungainly, empty phrases in an attempt to weed out some crumbs of actual information.

Unfortunately my client was sad.

He liked the other company’s site. He protested that its text was fine: it was a very successful company, so obviously the text was fine. And obviously their repetitive SEO technique in particular was fine, because, presto, those sites popped to the top of his Google searches! (I wondered if the fact that he had repeatedly looked at those sites before contributed to their prominence now, and whether someone searching for the same terms cold would get the same results. SEO experts, feel free to chime in.)

My client was not a native English speaker himself, so while acquiescing to the idea of good spelling and grammar, he had no compunction about downplaying the niceties information design, let alone good literary style.

It was a classic case of “the customer is always right.” So I gave him what he wanted, reinserted the redundant phrases, put the duplicate boldfaced headings back in. I still reworded wherever I could so at least any reader who happens to have common sense and an ear for our language won’t be totally turned off by what might otherwise seem to be a hack job.

I’m reminded of my query some while ago – to what extent the quality of a site (in terms of language) does or does not reflect the quality of their work to a viewer. Not everyone knows English or cares. Depends on the business I suppose. I’m also reminded of a joke my father used to tell about contextual grammar. If you’re being chased by a bear and come upon your friend’s cabin, you beat on the door – when your friend calls “Who’s there?” you’ll probably yell “It’s me, it’s me!” rather than “It is I, it is I!” And that’s OK, as long as he opens the door.