Friday, September 17, 2010

Convenience Killing Caprice and Broken By Design

Editor's Note: It's a twofer this week, about usability design.

Convenience Killing Caprice

I lean on Wired a lot. I'm not going to lie. Today I read an article about context-aware devices, which are objects that use sensors to learn about their users and environments and adapt accordingly. The example given in the article is a remote control that uses accelerometers to determine which user out of a predetermined set is holding it, based on the way they have held the remote in previous sessions. It got me thinking about what would happen if this took off.

Assuming I had a real television, and one of these stupid-cool remotes, my wife and I would of course hold the device in a different natural position, and each time I grabbed the thing, it would warp me over to the Daily Show and Eureka, and when she had it, it would line her up with AGT (Poppycock was robbed!) and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. The missus would be totally ok with the setup, probably forever. She is definitely a creature of habit—and there's nothing wrong with that. I however, am not. Knowing that the remote only works right if I hold it a certain way would become an unscratchable itch. I would constantly have the urge to sidearm it, hold it upside down, give it to the baby, et cetera.

Every time we adopt a new technology, we give up one habit for another. Rarely is this anything other than trading in a laborious ritual for a simpler one. (You think getting the kids into the minivan is a chore? Try the horse and buggy—you had to freaking feed your engine. Every day. Even when you didn't use it.) But sometimes these tradeoffs are still annoying, and I think it's important to our understanding of these modern times to identify the bugs and quote-unquote features of our tech that take a bite out of its beauty.

(If you're looking for examples, cellphones are rife with these annoyances, from public cross-chatter to the fact that you need to remember to silence the device in places where it would be inappropriate to receive a call.)

Broken By Design

Have you ever used a corporate website, and thought, "What were they thinking when they designed this thing?" The answer might actually be, "Evil thoughts." An enterprising user experience guru named Harry Brignull is collecting a list of the most common tricks pulled on us by web designers. They include a whole category for Facebook's notorious privacy settings, the "sign up online, cancel by phone only" trick, and several other traps of the web's intentionally obtuse. (I was directed to this site by a Consumerist article about a particularly dirty RyanAir UI trick.)

Frankly, I'm stumped as to why major above-board corporations would act this way. It's not as though Facebook's just up a creek if they make their privacy settings simple (or have an option for simpler settings) and set the defaults to a moderately safe level. As more of the services we can't do without move to dark patterned user interfaces with impunity, the usability gap may create a savvy subgroup of people who save money and have more control over their account settings, like the DIY crowd does in the physical world, or couponers do at the register. This, however, does add a lot of extra work for those who want to access the convenience offered by these sites and services.

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