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Monday, September 7, 2009

Why is this user experience shit so hard?

In deciding between Posterous or Tumblr for another blog I’m doing, a few things* regarding user experience resurfaced that I meant to blog about previously but never got around to. Not end of world type stuff, but peeves like general site navigation and features that vary greatly between social community sites.

I’m coming at it this strictly from an end-user POV too. Specifically: How do I experience a given site as I navigate through it?

As for defining just what User Experience is (UX), it’s easy to throw around terms like User Interface (UI) or Information Architecture (UA) in the same discussion, but each are different in their own respects. For a more in-depth look at the term’s Apple origins and what UX encompasses, this UX Design piece is a good reference.

In much the same way that I see the idea of branding being equal parts brand + consumer experience, I approach UX with the idea that it’s equal parts programming/site design + visitor experience.

One without the other? No good. No matter how cool it looks, if it’s frustrating to use or prevents me from doing what I need to, or what your site in effect promised it would do, I’m gone.

Cool matters too, don’t get me wrong, it’s just not the only thing. Having said that, if I had to pick one site that’s achieved a balance between form and function in recent years, it’s Twitter. (Complaints notwithstanding from others, check out the designer behind its layout and his approach to design.)

First up though...

Navigating the waters.

Ever go to a site and spend 10 minutes trying to do a simple task? Inevitably, you get pissed and yell at the screen, take it out on the mouse, then go “Why won’t it let me do this? I just want to....”

While it’s not just Facebook that’s guilty of this, it’s how I feel about the site every time I use it. It never lets me do one thing easily. The main site navigation is clunky and oddly redundant in a few places.

(In fairness, the layout for the iPhone version though actually looks cleaner.)

However, if I want to incorporate more features into my Facebook page, the effort it’s taken hasn’t been worth it. A simple thing like incorporating YouTube videos or my Flickr account has been a major pain. I’ve wasted so much time with what I thought “should” be an easy task, and still not gotten it right.

It’s like Pac Man: I just need to get from Point A to Point B, but instead, I have to do a bunch of stuff first and avoid some very bad things along the way.

Cue endless pokes and virtual beers thank you very much.

(If Pac Man isn’t to your liking, then how about this metaphor: Trying to do something on Facebook is like entering your front door by first going through the garage, then walking around the house.)

What’s a little surprising though is how so many people I ask say they hate Facebook for this reason, yet 250+ million people still use it. To quote Patrick Swayze in Road House, “It's amazing what you can get used to.”

Maybe a Jack of all trades approach taken by many social networking sites is the problem here. They’re pretty good with a lot of things without excelling at anything in particular.

Compare Facebook to a site like Twitter which for the most part only focuses on one thing (status updates), and there’s a huge difference though.

Which leads to the second problem I have with social nets these days...

Our features are better than their features.

One reason I considered Posterous and Tumblr is for what each did—and didn’t do. Obviously, that’s how you should compare anything. (By the way, for a good look at the differences between both platforms, Mashable has a great post on this.)

Regardless of what category you’re talking about, electronics, appliances, etc., you’d expect competing products to have different features, otherwise, why would you buy one and not the other?

Web 2.0 social networking sites though don’t seem to operate this way.

They tend to offer their own spin on what should be standard features or functions in the social networking space. That’s not the same thing as coming up with a new must-have feature that I didn’t know I needed. That’s the stuff that reinvents categories.

I’m talking about walking away from accepted norms of functionality just to make your site unique.

I understand too that development resources are often limited with start-ups and that a site won’t be able to have every bell and whistle at first.

But that doesn’t really explain away what I see happening. In the race to integrate the online social communities people use, nobody seems to be spending time to go back and fix the things they ignored in beta.

One thing that brought this point home for me is when I made a suggestion to the music streaming site about adding in certain features. The response was literally, “Dude, we appreciate the feedback, but there’s only so much we can get to—there’s only two of us here.”

While it’s kind of funny and he was cool about it, I imagine this scenario is true for the majority of startups out there.

If they are adding stuff though? It seems to be new features that don’t necessarily address old problems. I tried to think of a metaphor to explain this scenario and the automobile industry seems to be a good one to use. (Besides, flowcharts are so 200_.)

Say you looked at the approach to building these sites as if they were cars. You’d see that on the surface, they look normal: Windows, four wheels and a nice paint job. (For argument’s sake, you can also assume the typical automotive functions you can’t see, like engine performance, braking and handling, etc., all work about the same too.)

Looks like a sexy Accura, no?

Actually, if you click the image, you notice the rear view mirror is gone because it’s in the trunk, the door handles are gone completely, and the radio is on the floor of the backseat.

You’re confused because you expect all those things to be in the places they usually are. You don’t expect to have to relearn where these features went. (Or even rethink how to perform a particular function if it’s been removed completely).

Taking that one step further, if as an automaker you know that side view mirrors work best on, um, the side of a car, why would you then decide they need to go away just because you’re building a new car. The need to see behind the car hasn’t changed, has it?

Yet this seems to be the approach some sites take in their development stage now.

While it’s reasonable to expect that a site will do things a little differently, the changes shouldn’t frustrate a user. Not when they’ve become conditioned by habit to doing things a certain way, and especially if they’ve gotten used to having certain features from other sites.

I go insane when I see a new site come out and it misses the mark in this regard. I think all they had to do was take the best features from a competing site and just add in their particular “thing” and they’d have a killer site.

Instead, they skip some features, take one or two of them, rethink them, then add in their own proprietary lingo. All in an attempt to get you to use the site the way they want you to, not necessarily the way you need to.

(Flock comes to mind. When it came out, it looked like it was going to be The One. Great browser with total social media integration. Yet after spending hours installing it and then importing all my sites, I found I couldn’t monitor comments from anywhere, a feature I needed.)

A few more examples that illustrate the pain:

- FriendFeed or Posterous won’t let you customize or skin your layout, but Tumbler does. (Posterous is supposed to correct this soon.)

- Facebook and Twitter don’t let you edit your comments, just delete them. FriendFeed or Posterous let you edit.

- No sites allow even basic font styling features like bold or italic. (Scary that iChat is more advanced in this regard.)

- Blip won’t let you send a direct message to another Blip user, even though the site is integrated with Twitter.

- Twitter doesn’t allow you to organize followers alphabetically to find someone, but Facebook does.

- Delicious won’t let me post a collection of links as a blog post.

- Twhirl doesn’t let you undo anything you type. Most others do.

- Flickr doesn’t notify you when someone posts images to groups you run.

- Every blogging platform has different ways of submitting comments.

The list can go on and on, as I’m sure you have your own peeves about certain sites. None of these things though are impossible to fix, and every site should offer them.

As long as groups supposedly responsible for web standards like the W3 fail to tighten this stuff up, the result is that the same flaws will keep being perpetuated by the future Pownces of the world.

And I’ll keep blogging about them.

*This may or may not involve broad, sweeping generalizations with unusual metaphors.

1 comment:

the girl Riot™ said...

as far as posterous vs. tumblr, i will stay on the tumblr high horse and debate all you like with you about it ;) of course, if you are an apple-image sort of guy, you may want to go with posterous simply because the rest of the tech world seems to prefer it. i don't. i find that collaboration and integration are far easier with tumblr, combined with wonderful themes and a cool community. oh, and i can bold and italic things, too. kissesss.