That Isn't An Interface; That's A Disaster Zone (Asmussen vs. Heilemann)

With permission from Heilemann, here’s a reposting of a debate we had recently. Michael had shared this on Google Reader:

Leaked Screenshots of Microsoft Office for Mac 2011Daring Fireball

Icon for the Save button is still a floppy disk, despite the fact that Apple hasn’t sold a machine with a floppy drive for a decade.

Michael Heilemann

That isn’t an interface; that’s a disaster zone.

Joen Asmussen

You’re just a fan of new-app / new-age minimalism. Sure, it’s not nice. But it’s got somewhat discoverable buttons for a plethora of functionality nobody uses.

Michael Heilemann

I think an interface tells a user what it’s for. And yeah, I’m an Apple fan, but that’s because I think Apple’s interfaces get out of the users way and teach them that their applications are for content creation and manipulation, and not as is the case here, about interface interaction.

It is. Ridiculous.

Forget about the mom-scenario, I would be frightened if I opened this, and I would literally have no idea where to start looking. It’t not just the layout, it’s the style and the icons. It looks as native to OS X as Firefox, which is to say not, and has a plethora of obscure mystery-meat-esque icons.

Compare with Pages (http://images.apple.com/lae/iwork/numbers/images/whatsnew-screen-linkedcharts-20090106.jpg), which even when it’s flying all its flags, isn’t nearly as horrible as that.

It hurts me inside.

Joen Asmussen

Pages is a good example of an alternative which I, judging from only screenshots, don’t think is any better at all.

Bear in mind here, I’m doing my thing and playing devils advocate. I’m all Google Docs, even though it’ll probably be another 3 years before that app becomes full featured.

So what I was alluding to, is that the iPhone, iPad and Android platforms herald an exciting new era in which we throw down the shackles of legacy and start anew. On an operating system and application level. I don’t even remember what iWorks on the iPad looks like, but I’m assuming it’s way cleaner than Pages (and certainly Word). Because it’s a writing app how it’s built if we started today. Which Word is not.

Now legacy is an interesting word. In this situation, legacy refers not only to the Microsoft way of supporting every operating system they’ve ever made with their apps, or even including and still using 20 year old code in their applications. No, legacy also refers to the userbase Microsoft is scared of alienating. The very same user base that use Word Art, templates, Comic Sans and that clip art image of a martini glass with fireworks in the background. Both Microsoft and its consumers believe they won’t buy an app that removes features.

So what I’m thinking, kinda defending this interface as not ridiculous or a disaster zone, is that it’s been a bitch for the interface designers, having to add new features, tuck in ALL the old ones, and still make a somewhat userfriendly interface. This compromise sucks like all the Words suck, but it doesn’t suck ridiculously.

Okay so we can split hairs whether “undo and redo” deserve such prominent positions, or positions at all. And you’d probably win the discussion.

But do you see my point?

Michael Heilemann

It’s always possible to defend MS’s position from a pragmatic standpoint. But that doesn’t make it any less confusing or solve the fact that most of the interface cruft won’t come into play for most people more than a fraction of the time; if at all. It’s like they decided to not take any decisions on what to include and what to hide away.

Joen Asmussen

Well I’m not so much defending it, as saying that it’s not a disaster zone. Sure, it could be better, but so could Photoshop. Photoshop is a good example, actually — quite a few people use quite a lot of the features, and even more use nearly none of the features.

How would you tackle Photoshop? I actually consider that a disaster zone.

Michael Heilemann

Well Adobe put out Photoshop Elements, so I guess they acknowledge that a pro+level application isn’t necessarily needed by our moms. Essentially PS has the same problem as Word, which is that it tries to be everything to everyone. Personally I’d either split it into two products (saaaaay iPhoto vs. Aperture or iMovie vs. Final Cut Pro) or at least let the user pick basic or advanced on first open.

I just don’t understand why ‘glowing text’ is an option you want to give as much attention as font size. How often have you used glowing text? Most people will never use it, except of course because it happens to be right there, which is going back to what I mean by the UI teaching the user things they shouldn’t be learning. It’s like having a ‘Comic Sansify’ button in the UI; it’s good for one in a million users, but it hardly needs its own button.

Joen Asmussen

That’s the thing. Part of me thinks splitting Photoshop (or Word for that matter) in to “basic” and “advanced” versions is a usability and interface design cop-out. Sure I’m not presenting any other options here, but ideally there’s another way.

I agree with the rest of what you have to say.

Michael Heilemann

It’s like shipping a car that is both a sedan and a (small) construction crane; you can do it, but why do you want to? Except in the case of software it’s ‘easy’ to ship one product that serves two masters just as easily as one.

In fact, Photoshop already does this. Go to Window > Workspace, and you can choose the interface profile that works best for what you do…

So, yeah.

Joen Asmussen

Alright then. You win this round.

Responses to “That Isn't An Interface; That's A Disaster Zone (Asmussen vs. Heilemann)”

  1. Chris says:

    I’m glad this happened because I’m too sick at the moment to have started the argument myself. I saw the screenshots and thought, “Jaybus, that’s awful but I’m too ill to go ten rounds with Joen about how awful it is.”

    So, in this instance, Michael is my champion.

    My only point of difference is with regard to the notion of an application having an “advanced/basic” switch. No one would use it. Very few people will gladly step up and say, “yes, I’m a dolt. I should only use the basic functions.”

    There was more I was going to write but my congested head is angry that I’ve put forth this much effort so now I’ll stop.

  2. matthew says:

    MS are to scared to redesign, and it’s just easier not to.

    After all, who’s gonna NOT BUY Office?! What a ludicrous concept, how else would we all open these darn .doc and now virus-like .docx files?! :P

  3. Nicole says:

    I run into a related but inverse problem as an engineering TA working with Office programs like Excel. All in all, Excel is not made for engineering problems. However, when you have a class of 50 junior-level engineering students who may or may not have access to programs better adapted for our purposes (Matlab, Mathematica, etc.), you tend toward the lowest common denominator when demonstrating how to perform certain calculations. Excel is a program they definitely all have access to. But because Excel is built for your average anybody, relatively basic functions can be insanely hard to find. I can’t even count the number of clicks required to perform a Fourier transform, and the menu path necessary to find it is completely non-intuitive. Even worse: the Fourier transform was removed completely from Mac Office 2008, though it still exists in Office 2007.

    Unfortunately, all of this means that I spend a bunch of my time teaching students how to use Excel instead of teaching them engineering. It seems like such a waste.

    • Joen says:

      Really interesting usecase. Thanks for sharing.

      I have to come clean, I have no idea what a Fourier transform is, but I will proudly admit it and bow my head to a superior mathgeeks. My sincere respect. We do not have enough mathgeeks.

      That said, it sounds like the ideal situation would be if Matlab or Mathematica were free and open source, so you could simply teach your students the best way first?

      Also a sidenote, your tweets are cool. Are you working for Nasa?

  4. Nicole says:

    I would really only expect scientists and engineers to know what a Fourier transform is because we’re probably the only ones who have any use for it! I’m not a mathgeek by any stretch of the imagination, but I will admit that FTs are kinda cool, especially in how they’re implemented on a computer to make the calculation faster than it has any right to be. (FTs transform information from being a function of time to being a function of frequency. And back, if so desired.)

    There are actually open-source alternatives to Matlab and Mathematica–I use them because I work under Linux at work and haven’t paid for licenses for the real things–but the open-source versions are lacking in speed and features. Also, most companies are going to want students to be familiar with commercial products and not their watered-down open-source cousins, sadly.

    And thank you re: my tweets. I’m glad you like them! I only work for NASA in an indirect sense–some of my research is/will be funded by grants from them. But I’m a big fan of theirs!

    • Joen says:

      I have now turned off threaded comments. Not because you made a mistake, I didn’t even notice that, but because I don’t think it’s ever worked. Plus, I’ve got a neat quote feature that works way better.

      I’m not a mathgeek by any stretch of the imagination, but I will admit that FTs are kinda cool, especially in how they’re implemented on a computer to make the calculation faster than it has any right to be. (FTs transform information from being a function of time to being a function of frequency. And back, if so desired.)

      I love that sentence.

      Also, most companies are going to want students to be familiar with commercial products and not their watered-down open-source cousins, sadly.

      I just find it a pity that Excel is one of those commercial products.

      And thank you re: my tweets. I’m glad you like them! I only work for NASA in an indirect sense–some of my research is/will be funded by grants from them. But I’m a big fan of theirs!

      Also a huge fan. 10 points from Denmark.

      • Nicole says:

        I just find it a pity that Excel is one of those commercial products.

        As with many products from Microsoft, it’s all about the ubiquity. And, to be fair, there’s an awful lot that you can do with Excel, even in an engineering environment. I can see where it could be a very useful tool, especially when you need to share something quickly with others. Sending an Excel file someone can plug their own numbers into is easier than sending someone a folder full of code. It’s just not the first tool I’d reach for, given the choice.

        Also a huge fan. 10 points from Denmark.

        I get the impression that a lot of people outside of the U.S. are fans of NASA and what they and their international partners do. I wish that Americans–and especially Congresspeople–were more supportive of NASA and its missions.

      • Joen says:

        I get the impression that a lot of people outside of the U.S. are fans of NASA and what they and their international partners do. I wish that Americans–and especially Congresspeople–were more supportive of NASA and its missions.

        Oh I agree. I’m a big supporter of “basic research”, the kind you need to make to get to the moon. Brought us so many things we now take for granted, and forget to attribute the apollo program. Such as teflon, velcro — and I’m sure many more. And yes, I think there are a lot of Nasa fans. I’m in the camp that believed _we_ landed on the moon. Not the US, we all did.

        So that went a bit off topic.

      • Nicole says:

        Oh I agree. I’m a big supporter of “basic research”, the kind you need to make to get to the moon. Brought us so many things we now take for granted, and forget to attribute the apollo program. Such as teflon, velcro — and I’m sure many more.

        While NASA and NASA-related research have given the world many things, I’m afraid that velcro and teflon are not among them, though in the case of the former, I believe they can be credited with popularizing it. I think one of the biggest contributions Apollo made to the world was choosing the integrated circuit for their computing needs; NASA bought all of the first several generations of integrated circuitry, and the rest is history. Here’s a list of some of NASA’s spin-offs. I bet you’ll find that some make sense and a lot of them are not things you’d expect.

        Apologies for pulling the comments completely off topic, but I feel the need to evangelize for NASA whenever possible.

      • Joen says:

        Apologies for pulling the comments completely off topic, but I feel the need to evangelize for NASA whenever possible.

        Evangelizing Nasa and correcting my mistakes, is most welcome on this blog. No seriously.

  5. Kristian says:

    Apple has a VERY mixed record of UI design. Some of it is brilliant and works very intuitively. Some of it is convoluted and sacrifices functionality and easy-of-use for visual design choices.

    Also, Ignore The Code had a great blog entry about Microsoft Office. People want you to streamline your application and make it incredibly intuitive. Then they go on to say “Oh, and while you’re redesigning, could you add these 5 features I use all the time”. Of course no one wants the SAME 5 features, so you end up with Microsoft Office.

    Microsoft Office isn’t so much a failure of UI design as it is design by focus group – something that NEVER turns out well.

    K.

    • Joen says:

      Apple has a VERY mixed record of UI design. Some of it is brilliant and works very intuitively. Some of it is convoluted and sacrifices functionality and easy-of-use for visual design choices.

      So true.

      Also, Ignore The Code had a great blog entry about Microsoft Office. People want you to streamline your application and make it incredibly intuitive. Then they go on to say “Oh, and while you’re redesigning, could you add these 5 features I use all the time”. Of course no one wants the SAME 5 features, so you end up with Microsoft Office.

      It begs the question whether democracy in the group designing an application is a good thing. Which, of course, it can’t be if it’s what led to Office.

      An ideal interface design group, I would reckon, is 5 people tops, one visionary with a little more might than the others in the group.

      Microsoft Office isn’t so much a failure of UI design as it is design by focus group – something that NEVER turns out well.

      If you know how to treat your focus group, it sometimes works.

      When I worked for LEGO on Mindstorms, the software we built was tested on kids. If they didn’t know what was going on: back to the drawing board. Which was often, and when it happened, felt way better than if Mr. or Ms. Ego had told us she/he didn’t like what we were doing. Kids have no ego.

      By the way, nice to hear from you. That is one killer portfolio you have there. Are you sure that’s 3D and not DSLR photography?

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