Why design matters

“A user interface is like a joke. If you have to explain it, it’s not that good.”
— unknown

There are two elevators in the building where I work, including one that doubles as a freight elevator — it has front and back doors for access.  This particular elevator has a bank of buttons shown in the photo below.  The buttons for the rear door are denoted by the “R” next to the floor number.

elevator_buttons

Here’s why these buttons frustrate me.  Quickly, tell me which open and close door buttons work for the front and rear doors!  Yeah, I can’t tell, either!  You would think that the upper buttons control the front and the lower ones control the rear, but you can’t discern that from the way it’s laid out (and I’ve found that it isn’t necessarily the case).  I have had multiple occasions where I’ve tried to hold the door open for someone rushing to catch the elevator, and ended up hitting the wrong button.

Had these buttons been properly laid out, the open and close door buttons would both been placed under each respective door button column — i.e. the open and close door buttons that control the rear door should have been placed under the buttons marked “R,” which would clearly indicate that those buttons are used for the rear door.  That would make sense, wouldn’t it?

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been frustrated by a product simply because the user interface was poorly designed.  I would expect every hand in the room to be up.

Don Norman, an academic researcher considered to be an expert in usability design, talks about this phenomenon in his book, The Design of Everyday Things (disclosure: at the time of this article, I have not read this book — yet).  One very common example involves doors.  How many times have you come across a door with a handle, leading you to think you need to pull it to open the door?  Yet when you try it, it turns out that you need to push, not pull it, to open.  It’s extremely frustrating, and it happens more often than you think — so often, in fact, that it even has a name: a Norman door.

If you don’t think good design isn’t a big deal, there have been documented cases where poorly designed interfaces resulted in a significant loss of life.  I did a Google search for “disasters resulting from bad design,” and the results were startling.

This subject is of particular interest to me, speaking as someone whose job revolves extensively around technical communication, technical writing, and front-end development.  In my line of work, design and layout are a big deal.  I have seen many examples on the job of horrible documentation and bad interfaces — and poor design was a major factor.  I mentioned in an earlier article that I came across illustrations in a company document that were completely useless.  Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but if they’re not properly used — and yes, there is a wrong way to use them — they can be worth exactly zero words.  Likewise, one of my current projects is working on how to make an internal corporate social network work for my department.  I’ve discovered that I have a love/hate relationship with it; while I have no problem with the concept, the execution leaves a lot to be desired.  One of the most basic questions I have with this system which it fails to answer — and which should only be answered by the interface design without having to look up instructions — is, “where am I supposed to begin?!?”

Interfaces exist in just about every facet of our lives, including, but not limited to, application front-ends.  Good sensible design must be involved in creating them.  More often than not, they’re just “thrown together” without any thought as to how they should be laid out and how they are to be used.  The consequences of poor design abound.  In the best of cases, such as with Norman doors, they are just annoying.  But in the worst cases, they can have disastrous and fatal results.

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My introduction to Docker

With my (still-relatively) new job comes an introduction to new (to me) technology. In this case, the technology in question is Docker.

For those of you unfamiliar with Docker (like me), it is, in a nutshell, a tool for deploying and running an application within a container. It is an improvement over VM (virtual machine) in that it runs at the operating system, rather than the hardware, level, resulting in less overhead and a more efficient environment.

As part of my indoctrination into Docker, I looked up some resources to help me get started.  I found this entry that seems to be very helpful.  I’m sure I’ll find some others as well.  I’ll post them as I go along.  I also installed Docker on my work laptop and have been playing with it.  At the moment, I am far from an expert on Docker (in fact, I’m not even close), but I feel like I’m starting to get the hang of how it works.  Hopefully, I’ll be productive with it before long.

I also noticed that, in the schedule for our upcoming SQL Saturday, one of the sessions focuses on Docker.  I intend to attend that session.  At this point, any resource that helps me to learn this technology is definitely of interest.

Does anyone else have any suggested resources for helping me (and others) learn Docker?  Feel free to comment below!

Scary Deployments

My friend Steve Jones ‘blogged this, and this spoke to me enough that I thought it was worth a re-blog.

Voice of the DBA

I was listening to a web developer talk about some fundamental changes in a web platform. In this case, an older system was being replaced completely with a new one, and as one of the reasons, the developer showed some typos that had existed on the old site for years and hadn’t been fixed. The reason? This quote:

“Very few people understand how the entire system works that are still in the building … The thought of deploying [changes] brought people to tears.”

That can’t happen. Ever. We can’t be afraid to touch systems. When this happens we get paralyzed, and we don’t do good work. Or we’re not a good fit for a project. Or perhaps, we’ve got a bad attitude.

I’ve worked in a few companies where developers were afraid to touch a system. It’s amazing how quickly this attitude becomes contagious, even scaring management from considering change…

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