Fixed one of the cardinal sins of web usability

You might have noticed links look different on my site. I had them styled without an underline for a long time and I realized I need to practice what I preach. Some usability issues came up at work recently and articles I read made me reevaluate my own site. The most glaring usability infraction were my link styles. I had removed the underline and bolded links because it looked good. Bold text is normally used to add emphasis, but I changed that to represent links to other content.  When it comes to usability, changing an accepted and widely understood standard is simply unforgivable. End users might not pick up on things like this, but it can impact their experience in a very negative way.

Right-Click Taskbar Atrocity

I’m on the computer pretty much all day and I consider myself a power user; I need my system to behave the way I expect to maintain productivity and sanity. Every so often something comes along that throws a wrench in that smooth operation and makes me want to flip off my monitor. Lately that wrench has been programs that decide to reinvent the wheel and change the order of the options of the taskbar right click menu. What am I talking about? Right click a program in your taskbar and look at the order, close is the bottom option right? Well let’s try another scenario, hit F1 to bring up the Microsoft’s Unhelpful Help and right-click that. You’ll probably see the same atrocity that I see below:

SERIOUSLY WHAT THE HELL! Thankfully only a handful of programs were developed by morons who thought this modification to the standard Windows experience was a good idea. One principle I follow when I do user interface design is don’t make the user think. With this right-click scenario I instinctly click the first option to close. When it doesn’t close the program I have to stop what I’m doing and figure out why my computer decided to do something different than I intended. Sorry for the rant, but these flaws are the kind of things I try to avoid in my own applications and have become more aware of.

Keyboards are dumb (and I make my living with them)

I have a lull in stuff to do at work and I looked at my keyboard and realized that it is quite an outdated and unfriendly piece of equipment. A line from Atom and His Package’s song on the metric system comes to mind, ” You’re drunk with your tradition / That has no validity”. Ever wonder what the scroll lock key really does (was used to allow scrolling text around the then small screens with the arrow keys)? Ever actually used it for anything? Me neither. So why is it still being placed on our keyboard even though it hasn’t been used since the 1980’s.

Most things we use are engineered for a particular use, the shifter in your car is made just to shift and P, R, N, and D all make pretty good sense. The keyboard sitting in front of you though doesn’t make sense because it is meant as a general purpose input device and this leads to a boatload of problems.

In Microsoft Word, know what the F7 button does? It brings up the spellchecker. The only way you would know that is if you have it memorized, not because it makes sense to associate function key 7 with checking your spelling. Any guesses on what the other function keys do?

The shift key is another marvel all in itself, with the addition of one key the number of available functions available on a keyboard double! So in Word, when you hit shift+F7, it no longer brings up the spellchecker, this time you get the thesaurus. In some programs like Photoshop, I’ve seen some functions being tied to triple and quadruple key presses, good for people highly proficient in the program, bad for people trying to learn it.

Some keyboard functions have become standardized simply because of the location of the keys themselves! Ctrl+X cuts text and places it memory, Ctrl+V inserts that text wherever the curser is on the screen, and Ctrl+Z undos the process. There is no real meaning tied to the Z, X, and V keys, they just happen to be the easiest to press while holding down the left Ctrl key with your pinky. I feel sorry for people without a left pinky because it would make copying and pasting a pain.

So what’s the problem? This abstract relationship between buttons and functions is not user friendly. The longer things stay the same the more people get locked into it and that makes changing things even harder. I think our biggest hope for change lies with laptops and smaller form factor devices that don’t have the real estate luxury for extraneous buttons.

Have you had any problems with your keyboard or experienced difficulty figuring out what keys actually do what?