Friday, July 03, 2009

Why user interface matters

I just read a great quote by David Pogue in his New York Times review of a D-Link home router/backup storage device:
Isn’t it amazing that, after all these years, it still hasn’t dawned on companies like D-Link that simplicity sells? They still don’t get it: spending a little money up front —on hardware design, streamlined software, better manuals -- would save a fortune in tech-support calls and store returns. ...

... In short, D-Link has gone to the considerable expense of inventing, designing and marketing a smart machine that could save a lot of people a lot of cost and complexity — and then hobbled it by making it much too cryptic and technical for 90 percent of its potential audience.
This reminded me of an incident earlier in the week when a relative came to me with his nearly brand-new BlackBerry Curve 8900 and complained that he couldn't get back to the old home menu. When I looked at the home screen, sure enough it had changed to about 40 minuscule icons on a pure white background, instead of the carrier home page, which has a blue graphic and five icons showing the most-used features. He had accidentally changed the home screen some days before and had tried every conceivable way to switch it back. Tech support at work wasn't helpful -- while they support email on the device, they don't handle anything else, because he bought it on his own. He called his employer's CIO, who was sympathetic, but could only advise him to call the carrier tech support. They told him to change the setting in the options screen, but he couldn't find that.

So I gave it a shot. The interface designed by Research in Motion is maddeningly complicated -- many options are only available from specific applications, or are buried in submenus. Changing options often requires multiple clicks to select the menu item, change to another setting, and then saving that setting. I hunted around in various places, including the most obvious place -- the home page icon for display/keyboard -- but could not find what I was looking for. I told him his best option was to go to AT&T store where he had bought the device and have them find the option, but he was afraid they would shrug or be unable to help him.

So I gave it one more try. And lo and behold, one of the last icons on the home menu was labeled "options" (separate from display/keyboard). I found the setting and changed it. He was overjoyed.

But it made me wonder. The BlackBerry UI is so unintuitive that it took five people -- including the CIO of a large organization -- to diagnose what was wrong. We collectively spent an hour or two on the issue.

And he's not the only one. I remember when I got my first BlackBerry several years ago. It was simply placed on my desk by someone in IT without any tutorial or manual. I'm a pretty tech-savvy individual, but I couldn't figure out how to turn it off -- I had to ask another user how to do it. Ditto for changing the phone volume or the position of icons on the screen -- I had to Google the solutions.

If even 10% of BlackBerry owners have similar problems, that represents a lot of frustration and millions of wasted hours every year. Research in Motion surely knows about these problems (the first BlackBerry came out eight or nine years ago) yet it is still shipping products that confound users with their complexity.

Besides D-Link and RIM, what other technology companies (or specific products) can't get a handle on the user experience?


  1. Frankly, as a BlackBerry user, this doesn't stray far from my initial experience with an iPhone. I spent plenty of time swiping through pages and menus looking for some function or other. To me, it was just as unintuitive as the BlackBerry was to you and your friend.

    It's more about "what you know" than anything else. How hard would it have been to roll the cursor over the icons until he found "Options"?

    This is precisely the problem with most of Pogues pieces. If it isn't Apple, he doesn't know it, it's different than what he's used to, and therefore it must suck. But the Grey Lady does love her Apple.

    Fortunately, your friend purchased it at an AT&T store, where he can easily exchange it for the latest Jesus-phone and enjoy the subpar network that comes with it.

  2. Yes, it seems silly that we didn't roll over all of the cursors on the first try, but there were several reasons why -- first, "Options" are available within practically every icon/application (i.e., we weren't quite sure there was a dedicated "options" area, as opposed to app-specific options) and the Display/Keyboard icon -- the most logical place to hold the setting that we wanted to change -- came first, about halfway through the list. "Options" is placed near the end of the 40 or so icons on that page.

    Funny you should mention the iPhone. He was curious about it when we went to the AT&T store (I accompanied him) but I steered him away from it. I have an iPod Touch, and on the basis of my experience with the touch-screen keyboard, I said he would have a tough time. I also agree with you about AT&T's network problems, which make Web browsing in eastern Mass. very slow.

    Keyboard and network aside, I think the iPhone UI is far superior to the BB, and the browser is superb. There is no confusion over where most settings are located in the iPhone UI, and it's impossible to the welcome screen beyond moving icons around and adding password protection. It's also relatively easy to configure Exchange support on the iPhone OS, which is impossible with the BlackBerries that I have used in the past (including my current 2004 model). It took me about a minute to get Exchange on my iPod touch -- all I had to do was enter the domain, username, and password.


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