Bad UX: Fixing What Isn’t Broken or Over-Designing

One of the key things UX designers and product managers focus on is how to reduce friction for their users while using their products. If there is any UX pattern in our product which causes confusion in the minds of the user, they have to double guess how to use it, or they have to put more thought than necessary into using it, we have failed.

One such product that bothers me a lot is the tap or faucet. (Don Norman wrote about it in his book The Design of Everyday Things)

You use a tap in a very simple way – you turn a knob that sits on top of the device anticlockwise to start the water flow, clockwise to stop it, the water flows out of a spout in the vicinity of the knob, and the flow of water is governed by how much you have turned the knob.
Like this one: shallow-focus-photography-of-gold-faucets-1021872

This is simple, universal, does the job every time as expected, and there really isn’t any reason to make any changes in the fundamental structure of this device. And if I encountered a tap like this everywhere I went throughout my life, I am not going to complain.

Yet, we see the following variations of the tap at various places, where the variations are not just in scale, shape, texture, material, but in how the tap is used:

We are left confused as to which component to turn to use the tap, or which way to turn it, or whether we are turning it in the right axis even, or whether we have to push on the “knob” instead of turning it! Why have tap designers gone to these lengths to confuse us while using such a simple device? Mind you, I am not even talking about faucets where both hot and cold water comes and there are complex knobs to ensure you get the right temperature by mixing both, or sensor-driven taps, where you don’t need to touch the tap to activate it (they come with their own challenges – where exactly do I place my hand so it works? The tap next to mine seems to be working – why isn’t mine working?).

In Software Design

What are some of such scenarios in software & app design where the interface has been over-engineered to the detriment of user experience?

  1. Synthetic scroll: This was a pattern in vogue on blogs and magazine sites a couple of years back. If you used your mouse wheel or trackpad to scroll the page, the scroll speed would be higher than usual. Why? Either because the designer had found a nifty Javascript trick to make it happen, or … I cannot think of any other reason, least of all a user-centric one.
    Scrolling is something the device & browser handle and they handle it very well, and unless your experience involves things like scrollspy and page section navigation, there is no real reason to tamper with this behaviour.
  2. The sticky mastheads on sites, which would disappear when scrolling down, but would pop up again when you scrolled up a bit. Why do we need this interaction at all? Is the screen space so limited that the content isn’t visible when the masthead is perpetually visible? It is a little bit annoying to scroll up to re-read something you had just seen, only to have it hidden behind the masthead, so that you need to scroll just a little bit more.
  3. Form validations that go ‘above & beyond’:
    1. Some form fields take only specific types of inputs, e.g. numbers. But some designers go beyond just filtering unacceptable characters – there are forms where if you press anything other than the 11 keys (10 numbers and the period), the data you have already entered in the field is simply deleted, and you have to re-enter your data!
    2. There are forms where when the page load completes, a script goes through all the input fields to reset them. How is this a problem? Say the page takes some time to load, and the user has already started to input some data, once the page load ‘completes’ (in today’s times of progressive web apps, this could be an arbitrary point in time), the script just removes your inputs.
    3. Fancy input fields which are broken into multiple input fields one character wide. The most common example is the OTP field in many e-commerce apps. Why is this done? To visually denote how long an input is expected. As you input the OTP, the focus keeps moving to the next field, and thus the experience is completed, except when the backspace isn’t coded for. When you press backspace, the previous field should be emptied and put in focus, but at times the developer forgets to code that and it becomes an issue. Going one step forward, when the user manually goes to the respective field to delete the input, the code checks the existing data length, decides that the input is complete, and thus pushes the focus to the next field, without letting the user delete the wrong data.
      1. The special case of this issue that has bothered me for years can be seen on the IPv4 configuration screen on Windows. An IP address consists of 4 one-to-three digit numbers separated by periods. While other systems let you enter it all in one textbox, and you have to type the periods as well (leaving us in total control), Windows’ designers decided to make it fancier – there are four textboxes and the periods are ornamental pieces between them. It’s nifty, except that if you are typing any number less than 100, you fill only two places in a 3-digit field, and you cannot move to the next field except by clicking it using your mouse or trackpad. The tab key takes you to the next group of fields. Pressing a backspace on an empty field doesn’t take you to the previous field either. I’ve seen this behaviour and been annoyed with it for years now, but nothing seems to have changed here over multiple versions.
        windowsip

As you can see in the examples above, designers at times go overboard in over-designing interactions where it’s not needed, breaking away from the expected pattern, thus leaving the user confused or worse still, frustrated. These mistakes are almost always avoidable, simply by falling back on the most used and easily available pattern. This goes for taps as well 🙂

What are some of the examples of over-designing, in software or other products, that you have come across?

Notes on CommunityMatrimony TVC, or Let’s Be Regressive On National Television (1/2)

You might have seen this ad in the last couple of years on the television, and would’ve either cringed at it, ignored it, or (horror of horrors!) admired it and used their services.

Here’s my take on it (first of a two-post long ‘rant’):

The strategy/advertising/marketing/craft angle

Idea: Give them what they want
They want to “save their honour which their children don’t care about”. Let’s give them that. Let’s reinforce their perceptions. Let’s not fight anything. Let’s approach the parents, because they are the ones who give us listings in the first place. Let’s not approach a matrimony ad from the angle of the people whose life will be affected by the marriage, because we need to strengthen our buyers‘ idea that the end-users are not capable of taking the right decision, or are anyways on the “wrong side”. And that it is the right & duty of the parents to choose the life partner of their children, and whatever choice the said children have is not important for the overall happiness of the overall family.

Approach:
Classic before & after.
Before: Daughter was seen in public with undesirable different-caste boy.
Problem.
Solution steps in: CommunityMatrimony representative.
After: Photograph of a happy daughter happily married to decent same-caste boy. Relaxed parents. Please also note that the girl was happy in both the before & after scenarios. Our product does not affect the happiness of the end-user. It’s only the regressive parents we care about, and we’ve provided them (though in a simplistic process) with much-needed (though debatable) “happiness”.

Naming disaster:
As generic as it can be. It’s not an ownable name (only an ownable domain name). It’s a descriptor rather than a name. And then there are the various variants of it – the ones you are expected to use – like loharmatrimony.com in my case. Or do I use biharimatrimony.com? Who the hell is going to tell me that, huh?
Also, notice the smart usage of the euphemistic, almost modern social-economy word “community” instead of what they meant: “caste”.

The Execution
The acting is second-rate, the dubbing is third rate, the expressions are… well, the less we talk about it the better. The scripting/storytelling is anyway nothing to write home about.

Now on to the real WTF moment:
The enemy here, is not germs, pollution, old age, bad style, inefficiency, body odor, tooth decay, dandruff, stains, cholesterol. The enemy is other human beings, another community, and of course, our own children.

This ad takes just the opposite route from ‘catch ’em young’, where advertisers tailor their messages towards children so that they get early-in-their-life adopters (who can be addicts later on), or ads where the decision maker is an adult but the message is so tailored that their kids get influenced and then coerce them into buying that brand. Here, it’s just the opposite – attract the parents, because

  1. most marriageable youngsters would not be caught dead trying to find a life partner online, and
  2. in India, the society and parents have a sort of entitlement to choose any person’s life partner on the pretext of “wanting the best for our kids”, even though their prime concern is “is the other person from our community or not?”.

This concern is what CM taps. Do they say “we’ll find you an able suitor”? Or, “we’ll find someone who’ll gel well with your daughter”? Or, “your daughter will like him at first glance”? No. All they say is, “why let your daughter stay friends with that other caste guy she likes, when we can help you find a complete stranger (whom you can call your own because of his caste) and forcing her to marry him instead?”.

Another post about the societal implications coming soon…

I’ll be waiting for your comments 🙂

Castrol Active ad: Analysis

Before & After: You must have seen this format.

[before / after]
Gyms, diet plans and hair loss repair clinics practice a crude form of such advertising. Dishwashing liquid/bars also advertise in this format. Fair & Lovely made an assembly line of such ads, though their ads are one level higher on the story bit.

It is quite a general way of selling you something.

“Without our product, your life wasn’t that great, you had such & such problems, and when our product entered your life, it changed, for the better.”

But there has to be a connect in this line.

Which is what the makers of the last two Castrol Activ TVCs seem to have forgotten.

The script of both the ads is similar: An elder is teaching a young one (son/brother) to ride a bike. The drill is simple: clutch, accelerator, brake! Why brake? Because in city traffic, you need to brake more often than accelerate. Enter the helpful mechanic, who tells him that he’s right, but braking too often leads to extra pressure on the engine, which is harmful. Which is why you need Castrol’s new Activ engine oil. Problem solved. And the after scene shows a happy father asking the son if he’d only keep braking or ride the bike after all, or the younger brother just riding off without waiting for his elder brother to get on the bike, to which an elated big brother says “Munna rider ban gaya!”.

Castrol ad: father & son
Castrol ad: father & son
Castrol ad: brothers
Castrol ad: brothers

What is the issue with this, you ask?

Well, let’s analyse.

The ad has 3 parts – problem, intervention, solution (before, product, after – familiar?). The problem was two-fold – the young rider is not happy with the pillion who is not letting him ride and is asking him to brake too often (to simulate city traffic), and the elder pillion is not happy because city traffic is a b*tch.

The intervention is an engine oil, which reduces the strain on the engine which it faces in city traffic.

The after (solution?) is a happy father, who is not asking his son to brake anymore, or a happy elder brother who is happy that his younger brother is riding well now.

Did you notice the disconnect?

The problem that the mechanic mentioned was not on the minds of our protagonists until he came in the picture. He solved a problem they were least concerned with. In fact, he does not address their problems at all – city traffic still remains a b*tch, and thus elder person should still be concerned with it. What does his intervention do? It assures you that your engine will be OK even if you braked like mad in city traffic.

And somehow, this intervention manages to make both the protagonists happy. The elder one is not at all worried about the b*tch like city traffic anymore, even though common sense says that now that he knows the bike’s engine can take the strain of repeated braking and traffic has not at all improved, he shouldn’t be worrying about the engine’s health and should be pushing the rider to keep braking more and more. But he doesn’t.

Why copy (and why lie about it)?

Read this (courtesy afaqs!).

Right. The creative director of an agency working for Honda Siel is not aware of arguably the most popular words of arguably the most impactful movie of last year (one that displaced even The Godfather from IMDB’s alltime #1 for a few days!) spoken by one of the most appreciated characters of popular fiction played by arguably the most admired actor last year. If we are to believe Mr. Hola, there was no one around him to remind him that ‘Why so serious?’ would invariably be connected to the Joker – not the people at Meridian (creative people I presume – that don’t watch blockbuster movies), not the people at Honda Siel.

Yes we believe you. The ‘similarity’ between your tagline and the Joker’s refrain is “totally coincidental”.

Funny thing is that the line ‘why so serious?’ does not have any connection with the alleged brief (that the article mentions) of breaking down the hierarchy in the car segment (of SUVs and hatchbacks), or of positioning the Jazz as a car in a ‘league of its own’. Why would you use the line then if it doesn‘t connect with your brief? There can only be one reason then – to cash in on the buzz that line generated very recently.

Of course the Honda Siel and Meridian people have never read, watched or heard of the Joker or maybe even Batman 🙂

Fantasies can crash?

If Microsoft made cars, goes the story. And it’s been ringing true for so long.

I was reminded of this story, because I saw a web ad for MS’s masterpiece browser Internet Explorer 8 today. The storyline of the ad goes thus: a lissome damsel in a frock is busy eating a sandwich in such an engrossed manner that would remind you of good ol’ Liv Tyler, while our hero is busy watching her from a distance. In the midst of this, we see the worried hero trying to look around an insurmountable obstacle, followed by the text “Fantasies can crash”. And then we see a rather rotund gentleman just standing between the two, while all we and our hero can see is his posterior. Then the hero starts making faces, from which I can only guess that the rotund gentleman has just performed an act with his posterior which causes considerable noise & air pollution.

We then see the Vista-esque dialog box asking whether you want to restore your last session or go to your homepage. And then we are informed about the groundbreaking new innovation in the new IE8 – Automatic Crash Recovery (where is the ™ guys?)!!! Of course now you are dying to use the new & improved IE8 right? With this automatic crash recovery feature that was not present so far in the IE, IE is now complete and can take on the other browsers like Firefox, Opera, Safari and Chrome, which anyways used to restore crashed browsing sessions (they can even save sessions when you are closing the window, if you preferred). Heck, even MS’s Office software do a half-decent amount of crash recovery.

But the best part of the ad is the sort of self-aware admission that “Fantasies can crash”. Refreshing to see MS admitting in their promotion itself that their software crashes, and we have to just live with it. But look at the new shiny feature — Automatic Crash Recovery! Don’t you just love the IE, now that it can restore your session after crashing it? Make it more stable and reduce crashes you said? No sir, can’t do. We’d much rather advertise the most irritating thing we can show you — our crash screen telling you that your browser crashed last time you opened it.

Coming back to cars, wonder if cars advertised like this. “Your car can crash or break down, but look at this feature — it puts you back on the road you were going on (after 3 months in the hospital or garage maybe)”. Do you want to advertise that your product does not fail (or that you have made efforts to prevent it from failing), or do you advertise that your product can fail, there’s nothing wrong with it, just look what we have added — it remembers what you were doing when it failed.

And then there is the copy — “Let’s you start from where you had stopped”. Weren’t copywriters supposed to be good at language? But then maybe in the new age of freestyle apostrophe usage, I am a purist.

Widest? Really?

If you have seen or been to a Dosa Plaza restaurant anywhere, you must have seen their tagline “The world’s widest menu in dosas™”.

And if you have been in Dhanbad for more than a day, you surely must have seen the restaurant Waikiki at Bank More.

How are they related, you might ask?

Well, if you have eaten at Waikiki, which by the way is an excellent up-market restaurant, you would know what the link is. Waikiki’s menu runs in pages — I would guess more than twenty pages — and it’s filled with dosas for most of it. Last I counted they had 140 different types of dosas.

And Dosa Plaza themselves claim to have 104 different types of dosas in their menu. Can they claim to have the world’s widest menu in dosas when there clearly is at least another place where you get a wider range?

Dosa Plaza’s claim also carries a ™ sign — which means that they have registered it as a trade mark. All this raised a few questions for me:

  1. Can one trade mark a phrase, which is a claim?
  2. While registering a claim as a trade mark, do the authorities check the validity of the claim?
  3. Is it ethical for Dosa Plaza to make such a claim, AND trade mark it, when it is clearly false?
  4. If Waikiki now decides to contest that claim and wants to trade mark this claim themselves, will they be able to?

Any trade mark lawyers/experts here?

TLA anyone?

TLAs, for those of you unaware of that acronym (which suprisingly isn’t an acronym itself), stands for Three Letter Acronym.

After the initial WTFness has subsided, I would just like to raise one simple question for marketers with the big brands out there – is OBA taught at whatever business classes you’ve attended? Now OBA, for those unaware of that too, stands for Obfuscation by Acronymisation — with that, I have scored double points for not only inventing an acronym, but also inventing a new word. Thank you, thank you.

First we had seen the ever-so-reassuring safe-for-my-health All Out mosquito repellent, which kills more mosquitoes in my bedroom because it’s loaded with extra MMR. After a big sigh of reassurance, I take another look at what the MMR stands for. It stands for Mosquito Mortality Rate. So let me get this straight — the liquid will kill more mosquitoes because it has extra mortality rate? Talk about causes and effects getting mixed up.

The second case-in-point is our good ol’ Parachute. With its misspelt (but a smart branding tactic) Advansed. You ofcourse are aware of the Parachute therapie (another one, but smart) hair oil. And its advertisements. They said their scientists have done research and found out the reasons for hair fall. Do you know what those are? They are (gasp gasp!) RDF!! Wow, you think! They have finally found what destroys the roots of hair to make them fall! This is great news! Until you look carefully to see what RDF stands for. Root Destroying Factors. Had the brand owners not come out with that advertisement, would you have known that hair roots are destroyed because of Root Destroying Factors? I am bummed!

The business world apparently loves acronyms, and those of us who have lived a part of our lives in the SGAs, the RTMs and the CRISPs, even swear by them. But such OBA leaves even the likes of us gasping for air.

And ofcourse, when the consumer gets curious and looks for the real meaning of your TLA, like I (and many others) did, do you think the brand would come across as honest and trustworthy? To me it looks like, the people developing the product did not do much work in research, but they still want to tom-tom their “efforts” and want to sound important by using acronyms and smart-looking animation. Can your brand afford such an impression?

What do you think? And do you know of any other such examples of OBA?

Wish Karo, Dish Karo

Have you seen Shah Rukh Khan on TV sitting on a terrace in a couch, hair flowing back in the wind, asking the world why they are content with their current cable connection, and aren’t switching to DishTV immediately?

Remember what he’s been telling us lately? “Aasman me live Dish TV…”

So?

So, in India the only airline which offers in-flight television is Kingfisher, and what I see there is no live TV. No sir.

KF’s in-flight entertainment list contains NDTV Good Times, a Hindi movie (on air premiere), a channel showing Star One or Star World, an animation channel, an English soap, maybe one or two visual channels and some ten radio channels while the screen shows a map or information screen.

And none of those channels are showing anything “live”, that is what the people down there on the ground are able to see through their cables, Dish TVs, Tata Skys, Big TVs etc. It is programming that is pre-set for the flight. And what is worse? The content repeats. For each flight that flies in a day, the content is identical.

How do I know this? At times I have to fly Kingfisher twice or thrice in a day, and I find the same Friends/Khichdi/Sarabhai vs Sarabhai episode running on the Star entertainment channel, or the same feature on the NDTV Good Times channel, the same “premiere” movie, the same cartoon film. So the entertainment is entertaining in the first flight, but in subsequent flights during the day, it gets stale.

Anyways, the point is why advertise something (and give the public guilt over it), when it is obviously not true? Why lose credibility?

Stop spamming me!

What is the problem with Just Dial?

I have never visited their site before today. Nor have I ever called on their number and left my email address.

Yet, everyday I get three to four emails from them which would be titled “Response to your call for X-Y-Z”. And for around 80% of the time, I would never have even heard of X-Y-Z. The mail starts with a section on what the media is writing about Just Dial, and then “the information I requested”, which would be the name of the company – X-Y-Z, and then their address.

This company is being covered by newspapers and such is the problem with them.

I checked their site, and there is no “don’t send me these emails” link.

From one of their articles: “Just Dial connects the seeker to the sought”. Why is it trying to connect me, when I am neither the seeker nor the sought?

I think I should send them an email with the “information” they didn’t request but require direly.

Upgradability

I have a branded laptop from a renowned company.

It has 1 GB of RAM.

Now I need to upgrade, and want 2 GB of RAM.

I should be able to buy one more stick of 1 GB and have 2 GB of RAM, right?

Wrong.

The 1 GB of RAM in my laptop is not in one stick of 1 gigabyte. It is in two sticks of half a gigabyte each. If I now buy a 1 GB stick, I’ll have to take out one half-gig stick and replace it with the new 1-gig stick. Which leaves me with 1.5 gigs.

I could buy two sticks of 1 gig each and replace both the half-gig sticks. But then I have bought the entire RAM anew, and I have two half-gig sticks which are of no use to me. I cannot sell those easily, because if I need 2 gigs on my machine today, there would hardly be anyone in the market who would want a stick with capacity below 1 gig. With passing time, these half-gig sticks would become more obsolete and less in demand.

And this is not just my story. All laptops come with just two slots for RAM, and both sticks are occupied with contemporary capacity sticks. Which means that upgradability goes out of the window when laptops are designed/made.

I remember when I had a replacement VC820 motherboard shipped from Intel, because the CC820 I had bought was defective, they gave me one stick of 128MB RAM and an empty CRIMM (because the memory technology being used, RDRAM, did not work with empty slots). In short, if I wanted to double my memory I had to buy another 128MB stick and replace the CRIMM with the new stick.

How difficult is it to leave one slot empty, or ship laptops with three memory slots, so that users do not have to face such situations when they want to upgrade? Or is it a tactic to force users to either spend more by either wasting money on memory that’d be useless to them, or buy a new laptop?