Tag Archives: usability

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.

I’m Going to Miss the iPod Click Wheel

Fifth generation iPodAs I moved our iTunes library last week, I worried that the new system might not be able to sync with the old iPod, but relaxed when I saw that Apple still sold the click-wheel iPod Classic. They discontinued it a few days later, but fortunately we were able to sync the old devices.

Why do I prefer the older iPods with physical buttons and tiny screens?

Because I listen to music in the car, and a touch screen is a terrible interface for quick actions while driving.

While touch screens are better for menus, searches, finding albums, playlists, artists, and just about anything else, they’re actually dangerous for driving. A physical control of some sort is best for any action you might have to take while behind the wheel of a moving car.

Pause/Play, Skip and Volume. Those are the key things you want to be able to do with music without thinking too much about where you’re reaching, or taking your eyes off the road. (Especially if you have a mix of quiet and loud songs.) Volume’s on the dashboard, but it’s so much easier — and safer — to hit an actual button for pause/play or skip than to jab at the touch screen until you get it right.

Reading Les Mis: Paper vs. Pixels

A tablet and a breaking paperback.

When I started my epic re-read of Les Miserables, I was reading an old paperback and tweeting my commentary as I went, then using them as scaffolding for an article at the end of each week. The good thing about that was that I was posting things immediately, though on the downside I did have to condense things into 140 characters (sometimes less, since I was trying to link them together with a #ReadingLesMis hashtag), plus of course everything had to be posted, even if it wasn’t particularly interesting on its own.

After a few weeks, reading in a place with no cell reception had me tapping out my notes offline instead of tweeting. This was actually a big improvement, since it meant I could jot down page numbers as reminders, or thoughts that would go well in an article but not in a tweet, and I could work on refining the article anytime I wanted.


Starting with Part Four, “The Idyll in the Rue Plumet and the Epic of the Rue Saint-Denis,” I’ve been reading a digital edition of the same translation on the Kindle app on my Nexus 7. Instead of tweeting or jotting notes down in an email draft, I’ve been using Kindle’s built-in highlight and notes feature.

It’s easier to carry around than the brick. I’m also reading a lot faster (when I have time to, anyway — ironically, I’ve had less time lately, so overall going is slower), because highlighting a sentence is much less of an interruption than setting the book down and tapping out a note on another device. And I don’t have to worry about worsening that tear in the spine, or the pages flipping back while I’m trying to read.

On the other hand, it means I’ll be doing more work when I write up the articles, because I haven’t started composing my commentary yet — just a few notes and a lot of highlights of items I want to mention or quote. I’m 150 pages past the last commentary I published — the ambush in the slums — which is where I switched to reading on the tablet.

The typos bug me, though. I haven’t seen this problem with other e-books, but this one? My best guess is this was scanned in and run through OCR. It’s the same text, format and typesetting as the Penguin Classics edition, down to the page numbers, but there are a lot of errors that aren’t in that print copy, and they’re all visual similarities, not keyboard misses or autocorrects. In particular, the word “die” has become “the” in at least three places (well, four, since one of them is twice in the same sentence!) in the hundred or so pages I’ve read since switching.

And I do miss the at-a-glance indication of how far I am through a section. Flipping forward to see how many pages to the next break, then back, is a lot easier with paper than swiping your finger across a screen. Plus moving that bookmark is much more satisfying (and motivating) than watching the blue line at the bottom of the screen get longer.

The worst part, though, of reading on the tablet? When time is short, it’s awfully tempting to use that time to catch up on emails or other busy-work instead of detoxing your brain with a book. That’s one case where a dedicated device or a physical book has the advantage.

List of posts in this series.