Tag Archives: usability

Dear Twitter: Please Ditch the Clutter

Have you ever been to a Las Vegas casino? The main floors tend toward sprawling layouts, with lots of shiny distractions to entice you to stay and spend more time and money on the slots instead of helping you get where you’re going. That’s what Twitter’s new layout feels like.

When Twitter started out, the home timeline would just show me posts from people I followed. Now it also shows me

  • Posts they liked, but didn’t like enough to retweet.
  • Posts from people they follow.
  • A “Who to follow” box that I can’t seem to get rid of, which is also on the sidebar.
  • Advertisements – I mean “Promoted” tweets.

I get that ads are the business model they’ve chosen, but what’s with the rest of it? It’s not like I’m going to get bored if I don’t have more suggestions shoveled in front of me.

And I am going to get frustrated if I can’t find the stuff I’m actually looking for. Let’s think back for a moment to the early 2000s, back when there were a lot of different competing search engines. Google won not just because it was fast and accurate, but because it had a simple, fast-loading, no-nonsense home page while everyone else was trying to cram everything imaginable onto a “web portal.”

With that in mind, let’s look at what happens when we look at a specific post. The logical thing to do would be to show you tweet itself and the context around it: If it’s part of a thread, show the rest of the thread. If it’s part of a discussion, show the discussion. And that’s how Twitter used to work. But now you have to click through another link to see that context, and instead it wants to show you “Tweets from people like so-and-so.” How is that a useful default?

It’s like going to a page in a book and finding not the previous and next pages, but ads for other books.

I actually do like the two-click retweet button functionality, where you click and get a menu asking if you want to retweet by itself or quote-tweet it. Normally a two-item pop-up menu is a terrible idea for usability, but this is a case where introducing some friction in the process might give people a chance to consider what they’re doing.

But the rest of it feels like they’re desperately throwing everything they can think of at me in hopes of broadening my engagement with the site. And that reaches a point of diminishing returns. When you can’t use the site for what you’re trying to do, it ends up making you much less interested in coming back.

I wish I could use TweetDeck on my phone.

It would be simpler.

My Rule of Thumb for Preventing Notification Overload

To keep myself from getting distracted by too many notifications on my phone, I ask myself the following questions whenever a new category pops up:

  • Will I need to act on it? (Likes/favorites are nice, but I don’t need to respond.)
  • How time-sensitive is it? (“Your ride is here” is more time sensitive than planning a get together for next weekend.)
  • How important? (“Server down” is more important than a project update. A conversation is more important than a newsletter.)
  • Is it actually for me, or is it an ad for the app service?

Then I turn off what I don’t need, turn off sound on the less urgent ones, and customize sounds for the most important ones.

So I hear when a text or instant message comes in, but not email or social media. When I pick up my phone I see emails, mentions & replies, but not favorites or boosts, etc.

It helps me a lot with alert overload. YMMV.

Why I Hate Infinite Scroll

Infinite scroll is like finishing a sandwich, and the server plops another one in front of you without asking what you want on it, or if you want it at all. If you’re full, or you don’t like what they chose? Too bad, it’s on your plate now! To make matters worse, sometimes if you put the sandwich down for a moment to eat some chips, they’ll think you’re done and swap your sandwich for a different one!

Slate just replaced pagination with infinite scroll on their articles. Yes, pagination sucks. A multi-page article on the web is like a burger that’s been sliced up into wedges, and you only get one wedge at a time, forcing you to go back to the counter every few bites. But infinite scroll isn’t an improvement.

Both approaches impose the wrong structure on a single unit. Search results and timelines are one thing, but for an individual piece of content, the best way to map it to a web page…is to just map it to a web page.

Update (Sep 2016): Combined with giant images and complex layouts that slow down browser rendering (*cough* CBR), it’s even worse. To continue the lunch analogy:

  1. You order a sandwich with a cup of soup and a side salad.
  2. After an interminable wait, you get the sandwich and soup, but no salad, and no spoon. The waiter rushes off before you can say anything.
  3. Eventually you’re able to flag someone down and ask for the spoon and the salad.
  4. You munch on the sandwich by itself, which is at least a decent sandwich.
  5. Finally the waiter comes back with a whole pizza, and takes away your half-eaten sandwich.
  6. You still don’t have a spoon, but that doesn’t matter because the waiter took the soup too.

Too Many Notifications

The thing that takes me longest to set up on a new phone is the notification settings. It’s configured in each app individually, and it seems like everyone wants to get your attention.

Too many notifications end up one of two ways: tuned out so you don’t notice the important ones, or so much of a distraction that you can’t focus on anything. There are studies showing how long it takes to get your train of thought back after interruptions.

I pare audio alerts down to calls, text messages, and work-related IMs. Then I set custom alert tones for each and for specific phone numbers, so I know instantly which it is. (Assuming of course I remembered to turn on the sound, and it’s not drowned out by ambient noise.) Unfortunately every new phone or OS comes with a different set of alert tones, so it’s a pain to either transfer over the old tones or get used to the new ones.

I have silent email alerts. Social media, but only some sites and only replies or mentions that I might be expected to react to. (Not Facebook, though.) Sure, I want to know if someone’s commented on one of my photos or posts, but I don’t need it to break my concentration. I don’t need an alert for every new post on some site, or every new follower, or some auto-generated roundup.

And it takes me forever to find all those settings, turn off everything else, and change the audio for what’s left. Sometimes it’s several days before something pipes up the first time. I suspect I’m not done yet.

As much as we make all these things interactive, they’re still asynchronous. Except for calls and active chat conversations, I’m better off checking in on email or Twitter or Facebook on my own schedule, not when I’m in the middle of something else.

I can distract myself just fine. I don’t need my phone to do it for me.

Revisiting an Old Tech Complaint: POS Touchscreens

I found myself looking back at a 10-year-old rant about touch screens, or rather touch screens used where they weren’t the best solution: PIN entry pads for point-of-sale terminals.

We were at the grocery store earlier today, and Katie was grumbling about the stylus-only touch screens they had for entering a PIN. Unlike actual keypads, you can’t hide the number you’re entering, because you have to move that stylus around instead of 10-keying it in.

On one hand, a touch screen with a stylus is great for visual feedback and for collecting signatures, because the store can keep things on file digitally instead of or in addition to a paper copy. And once you’ve got that, it’s reasonable to drop the keypad, since you can simulate it in the touch screen. But unless it can react as quickly as actual buttons, and react to fingers instead of a stylus, it can’t completely replace the way a keypad is actually used.

What I find interesting about this is that the industry actually fixed the problem by rolling back: Even though touch-screen devices are all over the place now, I can’t remember the last time I used a touch-based POS terminal that didn’t have a physical keypad — often slightly shielded from view — for PIN entry. The occasional phone or iPad with a Square reader, but that’s it.

On the other hand, the Fry’s line notification system I griped about in the same article is still as lousy as ever.