Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Computer designers have failed us yet again

Two google interfaces have been chafing my eyeballs lately, and I just figured out why.  First: When I buy music on Google Play, and I want it on my phone, I can download it fairly easily, but Google intentionally makes it inaccessible to other music programs so that you are forced to use Google Play, and Google Play isn't very pleasant.  Why not?  Because it seems to be oriented around curating my music for me and also trying to sell me more music ("Recommended for you").  Here's the home screen:


What I actually want is a list of albums that I have downloaded to the phone, and a clear list of what it's going to play next.  This is possible, but it takes a lot of fussing to get here and it's still more glossy than functional.  All I need is the artist name, but look at what percentage of screen pixels is dedicated to showing artist names.  Maybe 5%?


The other culprit is Google+, which automatically uploads all of the photos I take from my phone (great) but makes it very hard to actually find them.  When I go to "Photos" in Google+, I see something different every time, it seems.  Today I got a list of photos I've published on my blog.  Where are the uploads?  And instead of a clear directory of photos in something like a file tree, there's a bunch of photos.  I have thousands of photos.  Instead of letting me browse to "Uploads from Phone" and then going by date, I have to stumble through an ever-changing interface from the Google+ interface team.

Today's epiphany is that they are probably designing for people who would rather quit using a computer than navigate a "file tree".  This shiny interface is probably going to show them what they want only 70% of the time, let's say, and the rest of the time they'll fail, but presented with an interface that requires a working mental model, like a file tree, they'll quit 99% of the time.  It's as though, when you went to a mall, the most popular three or four stores were shuffled to be in front of you, and there was no directory.  Of course, at the mall, if people don't see the store they want, they can at least stumble forward until they smell pretzels, but the average person looking for some data on their phone or even computer still can't do the virtual equivalent of stumbling past Hot Topic toward the food court.

And I think that's the real problem and it's more an indictment of the computer industry than of users.  Computer interfaces are so inconsistent and badly designed that the typical user is asked to develop a new mental model each time they try to use a computer.  Navigating a mall is not cognitively trivial: you have to understand floors and elevators and escalators, and food courts, and kiosks, and anchor stores, but these things have been consistent around the world since before most mall users were born, so that's only one model to learn.  But to use a phone effectively you have to know crap like whether, for the specific app for the specific model for the specific operating system you are using, a double-tap or a long press does anything useful.  Since individual designers have failed the collective action problem of coalescing on a consistent style of interface for mobile phones, and nobody's invented a concept of organizing user data that is both powerful and cognitively accessible to the typical user, now they just throw up shiny stuff on the screen and hope they are guessing what we might have wanted to see.  And make sure they are leaving plenty of room for the "Buy more stuff" buttons.

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