MozillaZine

Weekend Discussion: Usability - Mozilla to West Palm Beach

Friday November 10th, 2000

We're all probably keenly aware that there were numerous usability problems (and here) with the balloting in West Palm Beach county during this Presidential election which created voting patterns which according to statisticians are, for all practical purposes, an impossibility.

Not going into questions of legitimacy regarding the vote, my questions to you are these: Can blame be placed when usability issues create incorrect or uncertain results? Is there remedy? Much has been said about usability issues in Mozilla - how does Mozilla's usability play a part in the developer/user relationship? Is there blame to be placed if a lack of usability testing creates an interface that's difficult for users to navigate? Do you think a correlation can be drawn between software UI usability and usability issues for paper interfaces like government forms or ballots? What responsiblity, if any, does the user hold for navigating a UI or form that suffers from serious usability issues?


#1 absolutely

by jilles

Friday November 10th, 2000 9:11 AM

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A bad user interface, be it on paper or on screen, can be misleading. In the case of an election you might argue that users should double check what they are doing (I know I would), punching two holes is just plain stupid IMHO and not a usability issue, punching the wrong whole however is a usability issue and has everything to do with how the ballot was designed. But in the case of users vs. an application that can easily be replaced with alternatives, I'd say usability of the UI is very important. If only because there are userfriendly alternatives.

It is very developer centric to say that something is the user's fault when something goes wrong. However, considering mozilla is going to be general purpose software, I'd say it is a responsibility of the developers to communicate the intentions of the software in a clear and unambiguous way. If only to save those poor devils at the helpdesks from stupid questions.

Not that the mozilla team is doing a bad job. From what I've seen, mozilla is very usable and user friendly allready. The main problem is that it looks completely different from the other apps on the system. This might cause novice users to get confused. I don't believe this is a problem with the underlying technology (i.e. XUL), which I'm sure some are going to claim here, but with the UI design.

One of the attractions of a web browser is that the UI can be conceptually really simple: three buttons (back, forward, reload), a textfield for the URL and an area to display the content are all the essential widgets you need. The rest is nice for power users but nothing should distract from the core functionality.

#4 Re: absolutely

by Hard_Code

Friday November 10th, 2000 2:31 PM

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"punching two holes is just plain stupid IMHO and not a usability issue"

You know what I hate? When people use check boxes as radio buttons. I see this all the time in UI design. If somebody is using check boxes instead of radio buttons, should it be my fault if the whole application crashes when I "incorrectly" check more than one box?

Granted this is not exactly the case with the ballots, but it is similar. Say you make a mistake and poke the wrong box. How do you unpoke a ballot? Whooops...you're screwed now!

#6 re: absolutely

by JoeCool <joel@sysopt.com>

Friday November 10th, 2000 5:06 PM

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Easy... you trade your ballot for a new one, much like unchecking the accidental box. Certainly, a radio button situation WOULD be easier, but the alternative is also easily overcome to get the correct result.

Of course, when 100% of a second grade class can mark such a ballot correctly (tested yesterday), what does that say about the users? How can we effectively design an interface that could bridge a gap to people who cannot follow arrows?

#8 Re: re: absolutely

by gwalla <gwalla@despammed.com>

Friday November 10th, 2000 5:10 PM

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"Easy... you trade your ballot for a new one"

In Palm Beach County, many voters were refused new ballots by precinct workers. But this gets out of the realm of user interface design and into problems of human interaction...there's no way to make people more user-friendly.

"Of course, when 100% of a second grade class can mark such a ballot correctly (tested yesterday), what does that say about the users? How can we effectively design an interface that could bridge a gap to people who cannot follow arrows?"

Remember, poor eyesight is a factor. The fact that the punch holes didn't line up correctly with the arrows is another.

#15 Second graders and elderly voters

by mpt <mpt@mailandnews.com>

Saturday November 11th, 2000 8:45 PM

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`Of course, when 100% of a second grade class can mark such a ballot correctly (tested yesterday), what does that say about the users?\'

It says two things. Firstly that the second graders have, on average, better eyesight than the elderly voters. And secondly that the second graders are treating the as a puzzle to solve, and are putting their full attention into deciphering the interface rather than into deciding who to vote for.

`How can we effectively design an interface that could bridge a gap to people who cannot follow arrows?\'

By designing an interface that does not require arrows. If something as simple as a door requires verbal instructions in the form of the words `PUSH\' or `PULL\', there is something wrong with the design of the door. Similarly, if something as simple as a ballot paper requires visual instructions in the form of arrows, there is something wrong with the design of the ballot paper.

#7 Re: absolutely

by gwalla <gwalla@despammed.com>

Friday November 10th, 2000 5:07 PM

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"punching two holes is just plain stupid IMHO and not a usability issue"

Careful with those assumptions! Remember that a large number of Palm Beach County residents are retirees...it's not quite so obvious if you're coming from a state where you have to poke one hole for President and another for Veep.

#11 Re: absolutely

by Tanyel <tanyel@straightblack.com>

Friday November 10th, 2000 10:21 PM

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The "Stop" button is also critical because it is too easy to search for something such as "children's websites" and find porn sites, or other unexpected material. I suppose the "Back" button would work but "Stop" would be more intuitive.

#14 Re: absolutely

by thelem

Saturday November 11th, 2000 4:38 PM

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The stop button shouldn't be needed, since the content should appear instantly. Until that point, I agree.

#2 Usability

by bushboy

Friday November 10th, 2000 11:49 AM

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The art of Usability on the web is to deliver information to a user in the quickest, most intuative way possible with the fewest amount of mouse-clicks.

#12 Re: Usability - Sorry, it's patented

by ChrisSawtell

Saturday November 11th, 2000 12:34 AM

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Amazon.com have got that all sewn up.

#3 Useability can affect market share

by brasten <brasten@creativers.com>

Friday November 10th, 2000 12:58 PM

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I think that, while there are those people like myself that choose an application for it's features and advanced stuff, the majority of people want something that's "easy to use".. (which is one reason why IE is so popular in my opinion). It may be worth looking into developing an "Advanced Modern" skin and a "Not-So-Advanced Modern" skin so that end-users without a lot of.. ummm.. skill... would be happy with it. :)

#5 Sumart/Auto-Updating

by ipotting <iapottinger@netscape.net>

Friday November 10th, 2000 5:00 PM

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I would think, in this age of broadband connections and auto-resuming downloaders, that a first release need only be stable and useful. As long as Netscape 6 provides a simple and convenient ? if not transparent ? means of updating the browse, then what can or can not make it into this or that release becomes unimportant.

I look forward to the day when my browser *surprises* me with now feature and I never again have to check the ?About? to see if I have the latest version.

#16 Auto-updating considered harmful

by mpt <mpt@mailandnews.com>

Saturday November 11th, 2000 9:00 PM

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`As long as Netscape 6 provides a simple and convenient -- if not transparent -- means of updating the browse[r], then what can or can not make it into this or that release becomes unimportant.'

That is ignoring two basic truths about users. Firstly, Netscape 6.0 is (despite Netscape Marketing's messing with the version number) an x.0 release. As such, many users will judge the whole of the Netscape 6.x series by the quality of 6.0.

And secondly, many users never, never update their software. They become comfortable with it, and proficient at using it. Why should they upgrade? They have no real way of knowing in advance whether any gain in productivity a new version provides (from increased stability, performance, or convenience) will outweigh the loss of productivity caused by the requirement to relearn how to do certain things.

`I look forward to the day when my browser *surprises* me with now feature[s] ...'

From a usability point of view, surprises are almost always bad. A surprise is when the computer does not do what you were expecting it to do.

Any updates to software should be okayed by the user; and, where possible, they should be presented with a short and readable list of what they need to know in order to use the new version.

-- mpt

#9 New proposed ballot

by holloway

Friday November 10th, 2000 8:18 PM

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I have created an online voting form at <http://holloway.co.nz/vote>

I recommend a re-vote, and this replacement form.

#20 Two reasons it's bad.

by FrodoB

Sunday November 12th, 2000 11:28 AM

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1) Not everyone has Internet access. And you don't fix anything by requiring every voter to be computer-savvy enough to know how to fill out a form online.

2) Asking for the Social Security number is absolutely wrong on the ballot itself. The whole point of secret balloting as currently implemented is to make sure that no vote can be tracked to the person who made it. Certainly, to prove your identity at a polling place, you need to have ID. But doing it online potentially destroys the anonymity and the Social Security number is so easily obtained by persons of ill repute that it doesn't fix the problem of misidentification.

#22 Really?

by holloway

Sunday November 12th, 2000 11:25 PM

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I just thought the Javascript that "fixes" incorrect votes was a bit dodgy. Still, I'll take your advice under wing.

#24 Ha ha ha ha

by mpt <mpt@mailandnews.com>

Monday November 13th, 2000 11:31 PM

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Oh, my dear Mister Cruickshank, I think your brand of Web humor is a little too subtle for the average Mozillazinian.

I actually prefer this ballot form: <http://www.amazon.com/exe….html/106-6983378-5536435>

-- mpt

#25 Running on the proverbial half a tank of gas

by FrodoB

Tuesday November 14th, 2000 7:21 AM

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Damn cold virus. I knew there had to be an underlying joke, but I just looked at the ballot without actually trying to "use" it. :)

I take it, by the source code, it's supposed to only allow Libertarian votes? :) (Despite the bug to the contrary.)

#10 Mozilla's USability

by danielhill <danielhill@hotmail.com>

Friday November 10th, 2000 8:24 PM

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I think Mozilla is very usable. There isn't much clutter on the main toolbar, and the taskbar can hold important links (sort of like IE's drop-down Links thing, but more prominent).

#13 Window speed/mem usage

by ezh <ezh@menelon.ee>

Saturday November 11th, 2000 8:09 AM

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New window creation / switching should be at least 3x better than now.

When you press CTRL-N 10 times mozilla takes about 6 sec on my Athlon 600. Netscape 4.75 takes 2 sec - only the time I press CTRL-N.

Also mem usage... It was 17.5Mb on start-up with rus.delfi.ee as a main page. Now it is 20.5. :(

This is the main usability issue, but I living with it. :( Mozilla - is primary browser.

#21 Re: Window speed/mem usage

by asa <asa@mozilla.org>

Sunday November 12th, 2000 4:45 PM

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I've been an Athlon fan since last Septmber when the first engineering samples were benchmarked byy ace's, sharky's, anand's, jc's and tom's but I'm a bit disappointed in the comments you posted about your Athlon machine. My work machines are PIII 550 with 128 MB RAM, a G$ with 256 MB RAM, and a PIII 650 with 128 MB RAM and for me I get (on average) a first new window via ctrl+n in less than 1 second, and after opening 10 windows with this method, the 11th window slows to about 3 to 4 seconds. I understnd that Mozilla is pretty slow at this task if your machine is less than say a P250 with 64 MB RAM or as I've woked with quite a bit a P100 with 16 MB RAM but I'm really surprised that your machine (mid to low range in today's new machine standards)suffers from this low level of performance. I guess the Athlon classic isn't really up to the level of the bnchmarks published by respected sources over the last 13 months. That's too bad. At least Tbird and Duron are now available and I expect that they are a fair bit better. -Asa

#23 Also on DURON 972 + HUGE CPU usage

by ezh <ezh@menelon.ee>

Monday November 13th, 2000 6:59 AM

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At home I have a Duron 972 (108*9) and the same problem also. And it the last week it becams more visible (I change my PC-100 RAM tp PC-133 and now I have only 128Mb under w2000). :(

Mozilla takes too much CPU also. At least at last builds I used.

Currently I use 2000111108-trunk. Load <http://rus.delfi.ee/> and look at the CPU usage. It is ~12% with only 1 window opened and just loaded...

#17 Two aspects of usability

by mpt <mpt@mailandnews.com>

Sunday November 12th, 2000 3:30 AM

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There are two aspects to designing a good user interface. These apply whether the user interface is a Web browser, an airplane cockpit, a nuclear power plant control room, an oven, or a ballot form.

The first aspect is making it easy for the user to do what they want to do. Most RFEs in Bugzilla concentrate on this aspect -- someone thinks `hey, wouldn't it be cool if I could do this ...', so they suggest it. This can be good, if a majority of users are *expecting* to find this feature or option in the part of the UI where it is added.

But if too many features or options get added, the user's ability to find each one diminishes, as there is more UI for them to wade through, so usability as a whole goes down. In addition, things like price, memory requirements, and startup time tend to increase, also harming usability.

The classic example of this is Microsoft Word. Festooned with rarely-used and nearly-useless features like movable menu bars and AutoSummarize, getting to the basic features becomes harder and harder. And the extra features which are added to try to solve this problem (such as dancing paper clips, and personalized menus) tend to make it worse rather than better.

The second aspect to usability, which is often neglected, is the converse of the first: making it hard for the user to do what they *don't* want to do.

A simple example will illustrate. One day while using mIRC to chat in #mozilla, I entered a comment, pressed Enter, and nothing happened. So I did what any human would do, and what often works on devices other than computers: I tried the same thing again. Only when it still didn't work did I realize that the channel log was not scrolled to the bottom. When I scrolled it down, I found that my comment had actually been entered twice.

Yes, I felt foolish, but I was at least partly a victim of a usability problem in Windows: in Windows scrollbars, the scrollbar thumb is a similar color to the rest of the scrollbar, so it is not obvious (when looking at the scrollbar out of the corner of your eye) what position you are scrolled to. If the scrollbar thumb was a different color from the rest of the scrollbar, I would have seen that I was not scrolled to the bottom of the channel log, and my mistake could have been avoided.

These two aspects of usability are often in conflict. By making it easier for the user to do things that they want to do, you often also make it easier for them to do things which they *don't* want to do. The more toolbar buttons you have, for example, the smaller each one has to be, the longer it takes to find the one you are looking for, and the greater the likelihood of hitting the wrong one. Even so, it's scary how many of the RFEs filed in Bugzilla ask for a new toolbar button, a new context menu item, or some other bit of new UI, rather than removing or rearranging bits of UI which already exist.

There are several factors which threaten to give Mozilla poor usability. Some of them apply to all software projects, but others are especially acute in free software projects. Briefly, they are as follows.

* Software developers (and people who try out milestone and nightly builds) tend to be considerably more computer-savvy than the average user. As such, they can figure out bad user interfaces (designed by fellow developers) more easily than ordinary users can, so they may not see what all the fuss is about when people talk about usability problems.

* Developers may be obsessed with technology for the sake of technology, and may seek technological solutions which cause more problems than they solve. Example: At the local shopping mall, the toilets have water taps which use sensors to turn on when you put your hand under them. Very cool -- except that every single person (who hasn't used them before) wastes 5 or 10 seconds trying to figure out how the darn things work, because they're inconsistent with 99 % of other water taps. So people end up wasting much more time than they save. (And I bet the sensors won't work during a power cut, either.)

* Reviewers often concentrate on the number of features an application has, rather than how easy it is to use, and they compare it with other applications on this basis. This tends to encourage feature creep at the expense of ease of use.

* For a volunteer contributor, adding a new feature (with its own UI) is a considerably more attractive prospect than modifying existing UI to help prevent user mistakes.

* The person who designed the UI for a particular feature knows that feature inside out, so may be unable to believe that a considerable proportion of users have trouble with the feature until they are confronted with video footage of people trying to use it.

* Because free software projects are largely made up of volunteers, they rarely have the ability to carry out methodical usability testing.

* Finally, Mozilla is a cross-platform app implemented with a cross-platform UI toolkit. This makes it harder to implement many subtle platform-specific UI behaviors, which are needed in order to make Mozilla consistent with other applications on the user's computer.

-- mpt

#18 Re: Two aspects of usability

by billpena

Sunday November 12th, 2000 10:57 AM

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I work as an IA and UI designer, and this column sums up so much of what\'s important when considering usability. Mozilla does a better job of it than Netscape, and there\'s one reason: defaults.

Recently there was an interview on Linux.com with the UI team at Eazel, who are developing the next-generation file manager for GNOME\'s next release, and they talked about the importance of defaults when creating an interface that enables so much power for those who want to use the application to its full potential, while enabling a new user of computers, let alone this desktop, to get real work done easily. The message is clarity, establishing a clear hierarchy of importance that\'s reflected in waht features are presented by default, what icons and links are shown, what modules are started, and even whether there\'s text under the icon or not.

Netscape botches this by infesting Netscape 6 with links to Net2Phone, AIM, My Netscape, every last Netcenter area, \"Netscape Radio\" (Winamp), My Sidebar (defaulted to Today\'s Tips, I believe; essentially \"netscape homepage\") and on and on. This all clutters the essentially clean Mozilla interface with so many buttons, toggles, menus and widgets that I had no idea what I was looking at when I first loaded Netscape 6. After going through the preferences, I managed to whittle it down to quite an elegant UI, but there\'s no way in hell Joe Bloggs User is going to spend the first 20 minutes after they install Netscape fiddling with preferences.

But as Microsoft is headed in the exact same direction with MSN Explorer (just released - blech!), Netscape will be hitting even ground, ad to ad, mano a mano.

#19 Re: Two aspects of usability

by billpena

Sunday November 12th, 2000 10:57 AM

Reply to this message

I work as an IA and UI designer, and this column sums up so much of what\'s important when considering usability. Mozilla does a better job of it than Netscape, and there\'s one reason: defaults.

Recently there was an interview on Linux.com with the UI team at Eazel, who are developing the next-generation file manager for GNOME\'s next release, and they talked about the importance of defaults when creating an interface that enables so much power for those who want to use the application to its full potential, while enabling a new user of computers, let alone this desktop, to get real work done easily. The message is clarity, establishing a clear hierarchy of importance that\'s reflected in waht features are presented by default, what icons and links are shown, what modules are started, and even whether there\'s text under the icon or not.

Netscape botches this by infesting Netscape 6 with links to Net2Phone, AIM, My Netscape, every last Netcenter area, \"Netscape Radio\" (Winamp), My Sidebar (defaulted to Today\'s Tips, I believe; essentially \"netscape homepage\") and on and on. This all clutters the essentially clean Mozilla interface with so many buttons, toggles, menus and widgets that I had no idea what I was looking at when I first loaded Netscape 6. After going through the preferences, I managed to whittle it down to quite an elegant UI, but there\'s no way in hell Joe Bloggs User is going to spend the first 20 minutes after they install Netscape fiddling with preferences.

But as Microsoft is headed in the exact same direction with MSN Explorer (just released - blech!), Netscape will be hitting even ground, ad to ad, mano a mano.