Thursday, 9 August 2012

Cute is not (always) clever

Well, this is embarrassing ... several conclusions from the last blog post turn out to be completely wrong. But perhaps for interesting reasons.

After spending a couple of days preparing a brief introduction tutorial, I tried it out on my first independent user (the long-suffering Helen - thank you xx).

As you'd expect, there were a number of faults in both the tutorial, and the default behaviour of the system. More on these later. But the most annoying one was that the menu visualisation I created last week was really unhelpful.

In the last blog post I had been pleased with myself, because the tabbed menu had been implemented using pretty much the same elements I'd already created. In particular, the active areas that the user clicks to move between tabs were the same SubMenuCreator buttons that had previously been used to navigate between different menus. The appearance of a tabbed interface was created just by sticking a background rendering of tabs behind these buttons.

The result was both cute and elegant (in my own opinion), with the new tabbed interface immediately inheriting all the good things that came with the button regions.

Unfortunately, elegant uniformity is one of the last priorities for usability, as has been noted by countless people before me. (Remember the days when car dashboards had rows of identical switches? Cheaper to make and tidy to look at, but impossible to use without memorising their position or taking your eyes from the road to squint at the labels.)

So my elegant approach to controlling tabs was just really confusing - in fact, my trial user had not even noticed that they were tabs, but thought they were just more buttons. I should have seen the warning signs when writing that blog post last week. The real appeal of the "cute" and elegant solution was that it saved me coding effort. This ought to make us all hesitate, when we use "elegance" as a criterion for a good software solution in a user-centred application.

The replacement, after a half day coding and redrawing, now looks subtly different - with tabs no longer looking like buttons. Let's hope this works!

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