When Annoying Software is Great

A quite a commonly agreed measure of goodness of user experience design is that software should get out of the way from what the user wants to achieve. We praise the removal of clutter and friction, admire the software makers that are brave enough to remove features instead of adding them. There is even an ISO standard that tries to define usability via effectiveness (task completion), efficiency (tasks in time) and user satisfaction.

More than 30 years (an eternity!) have passed since the first word processor and email clients, but there are still new ones entering the market iterating further to remove “unnecessary obstacles” and to get out of the way from the user’s intent: to write stuff and send it away. (See: WriteRoom or Sparrow).

Almost every time I ask a stranger about what they like or dislike about Skype software, it goes something like this:

Well, I like how I simply click on my relative’s name and then just click the green button and then she appears on the entire screen and we can just talk for an hour. It is so cool, it feels like being in the same room! Last week I was talking to my grandma, who has been living in Australia for….

See what just happened there? From the second sentence in giving feedback on software, the software dissapeared. What remained was just the human experience, the long distance relationships and stories about people. The holy grail of great software: becoming invisible, transparent for the user.

Software that Wants to Get in Your Way

Now, on this backdrop, it seems that there still is a counter-current of software that does get in the way of the user intentionally. Note that I do not mean just badly designed software here or  some godawful legacy enterprise application built in COBOL and green-on-balck terminals, eating the productivity of whiteish-blue collar insurance clerks for breakfast, lunch and early dinner.

And generally, even technologically modern and well-designed corporate applications get some slack for getting in the way of their users. After all, every organization has the ways of working it wants it’s employees or partners to standardize on and behaviours it wants to bluntly enforce. It you need a certain doublechecking to happen for SOX compliance or your software development process requires every task to be estimated before entering a sprint backlog – it is probably one of the simplest and most effective ways to knowingly build a few obstacles, nags and annoyances into your enterprise software to enforce people to do the right thing. You know, a little extra checkbox here or mandatory form field there.

Where it gets interesting if  you look at consumer internet software and mobile apps that contain those obstacles in their user experience. There is no enterprise lock-in after an expensive purchase, there is no hierarchy with top-down pressure to use those apps, there are tons of cheap of free competitors to turn to instead. And still, for some weird reason, users love some apps that distract them on their purest way of doing something. In most cases – probably despite of the nags. But in a few elite winners – for the obstacles.

Let me give you a few examples:

  • (UPDATE) Twitter‘s notorious 140-character limit. From one side it is a limit derived from SMS (160char minus room for @username), but on the other hand there are no such external limits on messages transported over internet. SMS compatibility could have been addressed by other means, such as truncation and thus this global limit on messages was a design choice by Twitter that has influenced their DNA massively.
  • Path, a mobile photo sharing app which artificially limits max number of your contacts to 50. In the rat race between social networks for who gets to grow their users’  connection graphs the fastest, it was an eyebrow-raising move, but their users love them for the purity of sharing pictures with just their closest ones. And the pressure to think twice before accepting someone in.
  • GMail has a few tongue-in-cheek dialogues built in that, if you look from the UX purists’ point of way, get right smack in the way of doing the core thing people come to a mail client for, sending a message:

Call for Discussion

Firstly, I would love if you can think of additional examples and submit them in the comments!

For example, one immense area to think about is advertising inside web apps (not just content sites) and in mobile apps. Slapping a banner with animated penguins in front of the “OK” button user intended to press is bad for the experience. On the other hand, Google’s search users are known to confess that text ads often enhance their experience to find what they’re looking for. What makes advertising part of the experience?

Trying to generalize it seems that while a piece of software that in its entirety gets in a way of the user attempting to achieve their goals can not be considered a good user experience, carefully picking the moments to get in the way of the user on the feature level can actually be a good thing.

How to recognize the those moments? From the few examples above one might say that the motivation is to avoid something negative, to protect the user from acting silly (aka being human) – like confirming every incoming contact request as their “friend” to avoid insulting anyone. And it would be likely that there can be cases of positive motivation too – helping a user to achieve more than they expected.

What do you think?

UPDATE: Realized this could be a Quora question too and added it. So wherever you’d like to chip in.

Tired of Steve Jobs Health “Reports”

Well, ever since Steve Jobs went skinny (again, that is), the global Apple community and both new and old media have been nuts about speculations around his health.

During the holidays it was quite funny to see a classic butterfly effect in action when Ross and Robert Scoble were… buying yogurt in Palo Alto. “Confirmed: Steve is healthy!” went from a casual comment of the yogurt counter employee to Chinese tech news in just a matter of hours.

Yesterday I was occasionally peeking on a real-time feed by macrumorslive.com covering the MacWorld ’09 Keynote (which was not delivered by Steve any more, as you know). Less than 30 minutes into the session a screaming “STEVE JOBS JUST DIED” note was inserted into the feed – here’s a screenshot:

Unbelievably sick hack into MacWorld Keynote feed

It took the editors 3 minutes to figure out their system had been penetrated and retract the “news” (but they could not delete it). Then the hackers went over the top spamming with new messages and eventually the whole site was taken down.

As MacRumors is probably one of the most heavily used outlets for non-official Apple coverage, I can only imagine the tweets and posts on the friendfeeds and facebooks of this world that could have been triggered by the naive among readers in those brief minutes. No, I’m not even going to research for this.

I think it would have been wise for Steve had broken his typical radio silence before he finally did to avoid or just to respond early to speculations. Even though no person is really obliged to comment on the matters as private as their health, this rumor mill has become much more unhealthy than it’s subject. Just a few words at the right time direct from the source could have stopped the madness before it begun. A great PR case study in the age of unstoppable instant social media.

I hope Steve has many long and fruitful years ahead of him. And so does Apple, and all the other talented people working there. And the “fanboys” let them to enjoy their ride.

Apple/Yahoo’s Flashback from 11th Century

Yahoo weather on iPhone: Tartu is still called Yuryev?!
This is an actual screenshot of an attempt to get a weather report for Tartu, Estonia on my iPhone, using the standard Weather app, powered by Yahoo data.
What’s the joke?
Yes, the city of Tartu used to be called Yuryev at some point. Namely between 1030 and 1061 when Prince of Kiev, Yaroslav I the Wise burnt down the wooden fortification dating back to 7th century and built his own.
Just checked, Yahoo! Weather on the web has the up-to-date name. So apparently it takes a tunnel through Apple to get medieval.

Me-too Moments: iPhone

I just checked, it has been 14 months since my enthusiastic post on the iPhone announcement and a liminal devices rant. Operator locking pushed me back from actually getting an iPhone for over a year. Will I get thrown out of the true gadget geek directory now?

And now there I am, the last me-too kid on the block with the cool running shoes. Can’t help but share some comments. As the whole internet is full of reviews already, I’ll stick to just a few personal notes.

  • I was a bit afraid that the visual fancyness of the UI will get on my nerves. You know how the last thing you need is an animation when you need to place a quick call or send an SMS? iPhone is extremely well balanced between flashy effects and functionality. When a deleted e-mail folds itself into the trashcan or icons ready for rearrangement rattle on their spots, it feels very natural and intuitive. So do most of the input gestures, except for some isolated cases of double-tapping or tap-and-hold which I actually had to look up from new user guide.

  • How come it takes an Apple on a tiny gadget to be the first to do the mobile network connectivity right, with all those much more powerful pieces of hardware and software we carry around calling notebooks? Getting EDGE data going on a roaming network, discovering and setting up wifi hotspots and connecting over bluetooth to my car’s handsfree (with the best audio quality I’ve had in the car!) did not take a single setting or split second more than absolutely necessary. Instead of the half-hour efforts I’m used to from setting up any previous devices I’ve had.

  • Safari (and the fact that Mail relies on the same rendering engine) are the best mobile internet experience I’ve had, period. I have moved my personal GMail box reading over from my Blackberry (which I still keep for corporate e-mail and calendaring) if not for anything else then the joy of reading the Daily Dilbert strips again, as the java-based GMail client did not support even inline images. Google Reader looks so good on an iPhone as if it were a native local app.

  • That said, why on earth does iPhone Safari lack ultrabasic features like storing passwords for web pages you frequently visit or saving images from the web to the gigabytes of local storage available?

  • iPhone camera is utter crap. Just see an example of the noise it can store. And don’t even mention the low resolution and lack of auto-focus. This step back is truly painful after mo-blogging some 800 images from my trusty K800.

  • The screen, on the other hand, with its high DPI, colour depth and contrast is a modern piece of art.

  • The on-screen keyboard is no competition to physical keys, even in the most cluttered layout like on a BlackBerry. Forget one-handed usage while driving. Even when walking around the office, you have to stop and concentrate to reply a quick “ok” to an incoming SMS. Especially error-prone with my big thumbs, I terribly miss a way to jump back to any place in typed text when you see a mistake too late (there is only backspace!) and copy-paste functionality.

  • iTunes syncing works like a charm for all media involved, including contacts from Outlook. (Before you get there – if connecting to iTunes causes you a blue screen like my first experience was, blame Logitech webcam drivers.)

To summarize: iPhone brings a great all-around experience with occasional saddening surprises in some very basic features. The good news is that most of the room for improvement can be filled with software updates, and Apple has already released a number of those. The only truly broken part that would make you want to rather wait for the next-gen hardware version is the camera.