11 votes

The decline of usability

Tags: design, software, ui, ux


  1. ohyran
    (edited )
    Ok so I am not one of the GNOME designers (I did work for KDE Plasma), but I am friends with many of them and they get a ton of flack for things which they are testing, trying out and playing with...

    Ok so I am not one of the GNOME designers (I did work for KDE Plasma), but I am friends with many of them and they get a ton of flack for things which they are testing, trying out and playing with which is unfair.

    Many of the arguments here are ... I mean their not incorrect but they are very much played a bit too much for what their worth. I mean take menubars: they make total sense. Until they really don't. Like right now I'm in Firefox - I don't have a menubar because of the fact that I wouldn't need it. Now I think A/B testing can have massive drawbacks too (when you cater hard to a majority, you can crush an entire ecosystem of users due to the fact that users are not isolated pods even if it looks like that in testing) - but in this case it kinda makes sense. It isn't efficient because its easier to have, for example a "reload" button as part of the UI instead of as a entry in a menu.

    Some applications have menubars and its perfect - take things like Blender which would be a pain in the neck if it was all buttons everywhere. At the same time, sometimes they aren't so great even then. Certain actions are so critical that they need to be moved out of the menubar (or duplicated) and after a while, if you manage to place them correctly and intuitively (like "Pencil" in a drawing application), you can basically remove the menu bar.

    He mentions "tried and tested" and talks about how things always where... the thing is many of these things actually wasn't tried and tested, and even then many of the ways we use applications differ from how they WHERE used making previous testing sort of meaningless.
    Keeping things as they where is a good thing - if say something is just absolutely the norm, breaking it demands a lot of thought and consideration and being "like always been" is a good thing. BUT it can also hold back obvious fixes (insert XKCD comic about pressing space to heat your hands, something)

    I can't talk about Windows or Mac's (I haven't used those in years and years) but the CSD issues like recolouring is not true in GNOME (we don't use them in Plasma and if we do with GTK-apps its using some technical fixes in the backendy bit) - and moving, resizing is not as complex as the worst case scenario he mentions.

    Then scrollbars, he mentions that he doesn't know which is which and would, I assume, prefer some raised thing to indicate where the handle is and what is the track - no. Oh no no no. This is one of my pet peeves - having a UI element that breaks the entire layout of the UI creating a jarring and stand-outish view lowering the pleasure of usage (which is part of it). Can they be better to say place a clear visual to really define which is which? Sure. I can see like a dot in the middle of the handle or something or say a glow or whatever. That said I am looking at my scrollbar on the right in this comment window and I have no problem discerning which is which (even when the colours are inverted) due to its shape in the track. I think that considering Qt5 being so configurable its possible for him to switch as easy as the alternative he proposes. He makes assumptions here that is to me problematic. His preference is his preference, not everyone elses, but ignoring that final detail from his criticism I am sure its worth looking in to how to marry the two goals (personally I like the way they work now with a clear rounded slider in a square sunken track)

    [This bit is not about HIS criticism, its good, just... ranting on the topic]

    Finally the "we can't criticize" bit - sure we can. Everyone can but and this is my biggest anger issue ever. When Plasma 5 started up I had to get a lot of community designers in, we had devs, but few designers and getting people to dare to give it a go was hard AF. THEN when we got people who did testing, did visuals, icons, mockups, did simpler direct tasks like that we got the feedback and it was brutal. People liked Qt4 and KDE 4 because they knew it and that is fine. Many had good criticism. Some even did the gold star thing and provided clear examples and suggested fixes BUT there was a set of users who didn't care that the people doing this did this on their free time, who saw "criticism" (whining really) as valid for various reasons and who didn't care how they said it, demanding that these people doing this for free, after kids been put to bed, or school chores done, or work day over, should get "thicker skin". So often those same people never did anything for the project, they just wanted others to either feel bad, or do what they demanded.

    I think I told more people than I should to go to hell for going after those community designers in those first years and since then I consider anyone over 20 who can't deliver proper criticism instead of whining (and who don't know the difference) as a pointless hump and a millstone around the neck of any actual project. In my experience they never produce anything of value and ruin so much so quickly. Which sounds horrid (and being a fluffy huggy labrador style man, its odd for me) but its one of those facts afaik.
    I have had personal conversations with designers that I had persuaded to join in and dare to try - where I have had to sit and be a therapist for them. A huge chunk of what I did was spent doing emotional support for them in the background.

    I have seen more burnouts in my years in FOSS than doing work in the "proprietary world". Developers, designers, creators who have either just disappeared, or hidden away from people to avoid interacting with them, or quit, or in a few cases suffered complete mental breakdowns and ALL OF THEM where partly the result of the group of people who just loooooove to "tell it like it is" and "give voice to normal people" etc (again not this linked text, Carl's comments are just valid criticism, not good or bad but actual relevant criticism - but it needs to be said in other cases)

    Be good at criticism or don't try to give it at all. Its the least people can do sounds harsh but the amount of pure damage crap "criticism" can do is immense. Join in, try to focus on positives, suggest changes, talk directly to designers and just work on how you would want to hear feedback if that feedback came every single day over and over.
    [/rant over]

    9 votes
  2. [2]
    (edited )
    GUIs are hard. I’ve actively avoided developing any software that has a GUI because I’m afraid of how badly I’d screw it up. I’ll try to fill in this gap. While macOS does much better than the...

    GUIs are hard. I’ve actively avoided developing any software that has a GUI because I’m afraid of how badly I’d screw it up.

    What about Apple?
    I can't comment on the current state of MacOS since the time I've spent actually using a Mac during the last 8 years or so probably totals to a few hours. Apple used to be good at this, and I hear they still do a decent job at keeping things sane, even post-Jobs.

    I’ll try to fill in this gap. While macOS does much better than the examples provided in the submission, I’ve personally noticed a decline in consistency over the ~15 years I’ve been using it. (Though, I don’t miss some of the garishness of earlier iterations of Apple’s Aqua interface elements.)

    Screenshot here.

    Click to view the applications from top to bottom and discussion
    1. Safari
    2. Discord
    3. Music
    4. TV
    5. Terminal
    6. Finder
    7. Maps
    8. Fantastical (this is the active application, which jumps out due to the colored "traffic light" window controls and increased contrast/color in the other text/controls)

    So, there are 8 applications in the screenshot with their windows overlapping and left-aligned and each window positioned just below the top bar of the app window behind it.

    Can you spot the Electron app?

    I’m using macOS’s dark mode (which is actually relatively new to macOS), and these apps do a decent job of staying visually consistent.

    The proverbial elephant in the room here is Discord, which stands out because it is not using Apple’s provided GUI frameworks, but rather is an Electron app which draws its own GUI and tries, unsuccessfully, to ape the native macOS app appearance. If you look at the top border of windows in macOS, there is less indication of the border, but on the left, right, and bottoms of windows, there is an additional clue in that there is a pronounced drop shadow. We don’t get that indicator in this situation, though. Still, the delineation of windows is quite clear (to me) with a bright inner border and dark outer border of ~1px surrounding each window. You can also see that in the background/inactive window state, the "traffic lights" are a much darker color than the active window. Though, the leftmost part of the Discord window also has a darker background color, so the "traffic light" controls may have been dimmed to keep a consistent relative contrast? In any case it stands out. Also, in Discord, the top-bar controls are not dimmed even though it is inactive, so the text jumps out, esp. the "Add Friends" button which also has a very bright background highlight.

    Discord’s non-nativeness becomes even more obvious when you look at the areas where you can drag the window from (areas that cannot be used to drag the window are highlighted in red). The native macOS apps let you drag the window from anywhere that isn’t an explicit GUI control, such as buttons, sliders, or text fields (which are more consistently marked in the native apps, and surrounded by "pill boxes", typically).

    One thing that stands out when you do this alignment (but doesn’t rear its head so badly in normal usage) is that there is noticeable inconsistency with the "traffic light" controls in terms of positioning relative to the window border. There is even inconsistency in the heights of the borders! Music, Discord, Finder, and Fantastical stand out for having taller top bars.

    tl;dr macOS does a decent job, but even on a platform for which Apple has been lauded, historically, for consistency and rigorous adherence to their human interface guidelines (HIG), there are still noticeable inconsistency and potential usability issues creeping in.

    Edit: If you are into fine-grained dissection of macOS’s GUI in this vein, I highly recommend John Siracusa’s 15-year run of reviewing macOS/OS X releases for Ars Technica. Siracusa linked to all his reviews in his post announcing his retirement from doing so. Andrew Cunningham has since taken over the reviews for Ars Technica, and while his reviews are still worth reading, the depth and breadth of Siracusa’s pieces are peerless.

    3 votes
    1. ohyran
      Link Parent
      I just wanna toss in that you shouldn't be scared of doing GUI's. Sure some bits will get wrong, but everything is fixable and its mostly about thinking "If I just opened this app for the first...

      I just wanna toss in that you shouldn't be scared of doing GUI's. Sure some bits will get wrong, but everything is fixable and its mostly about thinking "If I just opened this app for the first time, where would I want things to be?" and then perhaps checking whatever the native OS/DE/Whatever has as guides. If its FOSS, and they have a design group, ask them for advice or feedback or help

      Design is easy, fun, and like they said decades ago when those Texas Hold'em things kept being shown on TV at around 2 in the morning every damn nigh: it takes minutes to learn, but a lifetime to master.

      You can do it! Look at me, I am by all accounts a moron and I get away with it... errr I mean work as a designer... O_O

      4 votes