If It Isn’t Broken, Don’t Fix It

On Good Behavior

The essentials of interaction design

March 10, 2014

Over the last few years, I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend in UX design: changes in the design of successful software user interfaces that actually degrade rather than enhance the user experience. This seems to happen for a variety of reasons—for example, because of

  • designers conforming slavishly to current design trends such as minimalism or flat design rather than focusing on meeting users’ needs
  • companies’ leaders wanting their UX designers to create “cool” rather than usable user interfaces
  • UX teams not doing usability testing or other user research that would validate a new design approach rather than being committed to doing user-centered design
  • designers disregarding the power of users’ kinesthetic memory when rethinking application layouts rather than giving it the respect that it warrants
  • designers succumbing to the egotistical desire to put their personal stamp on the design of software user interfaces rather than recognizing and preserving the value that products have long provided to users
  • designers making changes for the sake of change alone rather than strategically driving change to deliver greater value to users
  • companies engaging in feature wars with their competitors—causing their software user interfaces to become bloated with unnecessary features—rather than striving to differentiate their offerings in the marketplace
  • companies crafting user experiences that selfishly further their business goals rather than deriving business value by meeting users’ needs better
  • companies releasing software whose quality is not up to snuff because they’ve rushed it to market without adequate testing and debugging

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When one considers design changes that have contributed to the devolution of software user experiences over time, it’s often difficult to determine which of these destructive forces may have been at work. What is clear is that the software industry is doing a disservice to its customers by allowing this to occur. Any user who pays hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a software upgrade rightly expects that the new version will be better than the old one. This expectation is all too often disappointed.

While refreshing an application’s or operating system’s visual design may occasionally detract from its usability, interaction design changes are typically those that cause serious problems for users. And many of the biggest software development companies are guilty of introducing changes that degrade the usability of their software. They can afford to do better, but once a company has got a monopoly on a particular market niche, it’s often all too tempting to prioritize profit margins over serving users’ needs. Let’s take a look at a few ill-considered design changes that have negatively impacted users.

OS X: Preventing Long-Established Interactions

Preventing long-established interactions by introducing design changes and removing essential features is bound to frustrate long-time users. The design changes that Apple has made in recent versions of OS X that have bugged me the most are their removing two features that I relied on heavily:

  • scroll arrows on scroll bars
  • the Save As command on the File menu

The Loss of Scroll Arrows

In July 2011, Apple released OS X version 10.7, otherwise known as Lion. I immediately came to rue my decision to upgrade because Apple had removed the scroll arrows from scroll bars, which I’d habitually used. Figure 1 shows scroll arrows in Snow Leopard—the last version of Mac OS X to include them; Figure 2, the scroll bar settings in System Preferences.

Figure 1—Scroll bars with scroll arrows in Snow Leopard
Scroll bars with scroll arrows in Snow Leopard

From the Apple Human Interface Guidelines published on June 9, 2008

Figure 2—System Preferences for scroll bars in Snow Leopard
System Preferences for scroll bars in Snow Leopard

It didn’t take long for a storm of protests to erupt from irate users regarding the lack scroll arrows. For the following reasons, this is a change that Apple should never have made.

  • Without scroll arrows, it’s not as easy to to scroll to a precise location in a document—a capability that many users need.
  • While using the up and down arrow keys to scroll vertically works pretty well when browsing the Web, it’s necessary for users to move their hands from the mouse or trackpad to the keyboard, making the use of the up and down arrow keys less convenient than scrolling only with the mouse or trackpad.
  • Using the arrow keys to scroll in no way suffices when users are working in applications in which they create long documents, where pressing an up or down arrow key laboriously moves the insertion point from line to line, making it take forever to actually scroll.
  • Making the assumption that all users would happily adopt gestural interactions on a trackpad was a mistake. Apple shouldn’t have pushed their design agenda so hard. They could easily have allowed users to always show scroll arrows, just as they did for the scroll bars themselves, as shown in Figure 3. Not surprisingly, I’ve chosen to always show scroll bars because I prefer to be able to see where I am in a document and how large a document is becoming as I’m working.
  • Scroll arrows had been a feature of scroll bars since the launch of the Macintosh in January 1984—that is, for 27 years—making this change nothing less than a betrayal of users who had long ago formed their usage habits.
  • Taking away essential features is carrying minimalism too far.
Figure 3—System Preferences for scroll-bar settings in Mountain Lion
Mountain Lion’ s scroll bar settings in General System Preferences

There are several very long discussion threads regarding this topic on Apple Support Communities that Apple has completely ignored. I don’t think that’s indicative of a good customer-service ethic. As one commenter wrote, “It really looks like Apple no longer cares about people who are trying to use Macs to do serious work.”

I’ve adapted to this change by using two-finger scrolling on my trackpad, but I find this interaction to be less precise than the use of scroll arrows. And, while I love using gestural, touch interactions on my iPhone and iPad, I’m not generally a fan of using gestural interactions on a trackpad. My long-established habit of two-handed use of a trackpad—using my right hand to acquire a target, then my left hand to click—just doesn’t work when most of the gestural interactions are turned on. And because gestures don’t work as well on my Mac as on my other devices, I’m not motivated to change my habitual way of working. Changing deeply ingrained habits is hard. However, I do try out using gestures in each new version of Mac OS X that comes out, in the hope that they’ll improve enough to make me want to use them. (While Adobe uses standard Mac OS X scroll bars in most of its Creative Suite applications, I’m grateful that they’ve retained the custom scroll bars with scroll arrows in Dreamweaver, one of the applications that I use most.)

Confusion Around New File-Saving Paradigms

While Auto Save was a welcome addition to the applications that came bundled with OS X Lion such as TextEdit and Preview, it was coupled with another controversial design change: changing the Save command to Save a Version, which let a user save a different version of a saved document at any time, and removing the Save As command from the File menu, replacing it with Duplicate. Rather than letting a user either save a file under a different name or save it in a different place or both as Save As had, Duplicate creates a copy of a file, placing it the same place as the original, then lets a user change its name, as shown in Figures 4 and 5.

Figure 4File menu in Lion’s TextEdit
File menu in Lion's TextEdit
Figure 5—Changing a duplicated file’s name
Changing a duplicated file's name

At least, in this case, Apple realized its mistake. Though the company does not appear to have learned well enough from prior mistakes how best to correct such mistakes. In OS X version 10.8, Mountain Lion, the File menu has again morphed into something unfamiliar. This time into a proliferation of commands—Duplicate, Rename, and Move To—for which Save As alone used to suffice, as shown in Figure 6. Both the Save and Rename commands display a Save As dialog box, shown in Figure 7. Thus, the behavior of Save is inconsistent with that of the traditional Save command. The Move To command displays the rather useless dialog box shown in Figure 8. If a user clicks Other at the very bottom of the Where drop-down list box, shown in Figure 9, a Save As dialog box appears.

Figure 6File menu in Mountain Lion’s TextEdit
File menu in Mountain Lion’s TextEdit
Figure 7—Save As dialog box in Mountain Lion’s TextEdit
Save As dialog box in Mountain Lion’s TextEdit
Figure 8—Move To dialog box
Move To dialog box
Figure 9Where drop-down list box in the Move To dialog box
Where drop-down list box in the Move To dialog box

Fortunately, most other major software developers didn’t jump on Apple’s design bandwagon and have retained the Mac’s traditional Save and Save As commands on the File menu, shown in Figure 10.

Figure 10—Traditional File menu
Traditional File menu

Sadly, Apple has made many more design missteps since Steve Jobs became ill, then resigned from his position as CEO of Apple on August 24, 2011. His vision and attention to detail are sorely missed.

Adobe Creative Suite 6: Damage to Dreamweaver

In making a too-long-overdue effort to bring more consistency to interactions in the applications in Creative Suite 6 for Mac, Adobe decided to bring Photoshop’s user interface into greater conformance with that of Illustrator, disrupting the user experience for people who are primarily Photoshop users. In my opinion, Adobe should have realized it was past the point of no return and left well enough alone.

On the other hand, in CS6, Adobe has again almost completely neglected to make any improvements to Dreamweaver. Most of the changes that I’ve noticed are actually bugs that got introduced in CS6—for example:

  • Dreamweaver no longer remembers the window layout that I prefer to use or applies it to all documents that I create or open, and its defaults are exactly what I would not want. So, every time I create a Web document or open one that I haven’t opened recently, I have to do either of the following:
    • Click the Layout icon on the window title bar to display the Layout menu, then click Code and Design to display a split-screen view. Click Split Vertically to deselect it, and finally, click Design View on Top to deselect it, as shown in Figure 11. That’s four clicks times how many ever documents I open—a lot of clicks that I didn’t have to make when Dreamweaver remembered the settings that I always use.
    • Alternatively, click View on the menu bar, then click Code and Design on the menu. Click View on the menu bar, then click Split Vertically to deselect it. Click View on the menu bar, then click Design View on Top to deselect it. That’s six clicks for every document!
  • It’s no longer possible to specify a title for a link that I create using the Hyperlink dialog box. Yes, the field is still there, but if I specify a title, the link doesn’t get created at all! So I have to write the title code manually for each link.
  • Dreamweaver no longer allows me to find and replace strings of extra spaces that get introduced into the HTML code in text that I’ve copied from Word, then pasted into a Web document. (In the Mac version of Dreamweaver, there is no import feature for Word documents as there is in the Windows version. And content from Word documents that were originally created on a PC don’t come across well. In addition to throwing in lots of extra spaces in the HTML code, it omits most paragraph tags and uses line breaks instead.) So, if I want my HTML code to be tidy, I have to select each instance manually, then cut it.
Figure 11—Dreamweaver’s Layout menu
Dreamweaver's Layout menu

How Adobe managed to introduce so many bugs into Dreamweaver without making any improvements to the application is a mystery to me.

Google Gone Wrong

Some examples of design changes that Google has made recently that have not been well received by users include the following:

  • Google Search—It’s very disconcerting to have the search box whipped away from it’s traditional location—centered on the page—to the upper-left corner of the page as soon as a user starts typing a search string. And the search page loads much more slowly than it used to, introducing a very noticeable delay before a user can even start typing a search string. Between the unnecessary animation to move the search box and displaying the search results on the same page, this is now a much heavier page. While displaying the search results on the same page is a desirable feature, this could have been done with more finesse.
  • Google Maps—Until recently, Google Maps was a joy to use, and its user interface had evolved coherently throughout the addition of many powerful new features. But the most recent version of the Google Maps Web application combines seemingly arbitrary layout changes—very little is where it used to be or is in the same location both on the desktop and on an iPad in landscape view; minimalism that has run amok, resulting in a more difficult to decipher user interface; unstable behaviors; cryptic icons; and poor assumptions regarding what users would want to do next result in a user interface that no longer meets users’ needs as well as it once did. Do its designers really think users would generally want to immediately zoom in on their destination rather than get an overview of their route first? That considered, was it really a good idea to minimalize the zoom feature for the desktop Web application, making zooming a much more laborious process?

In Conclusion

Examples of bad design changes that have degraded the usability of software user interfaces are far too numerous. Software companies used to do a much better job of serving their users’ needs than they do today. Of course, there’s room for improvement in just about any software user interface, and applications that evolve gracefully continually provide greater value to users. But, all too often, design changes lead to user frustration. For example, when users’ kinesthetic memory makes them reach for a control in a particular location on a screen and it’s not there anymore, this frustrates users and reduces their efficiency.

When redesigning software, the key to great design is first distinguishing between what’s working well for users and what isn’t; then preserving the good—an,d in some cases, just the familiar—remedying the problems, adding new features without detracting from existing features, and delivering a coherent, holistic design solution. 

Principal Consultant at Strategic UX

Founder, Publisher, and Editor in Chief of UXmatters

Silicon Valley, California, USA

Pabini Gabriel-PetitWith more than 20 years working in User Experience at companies such as Google, Cisco, WebEx, Apple, and many startups, Pabini now provides UX strategy and design consulting services through her Silicon Valley company, Strategic UX. Her past UX leadership roles include Head of UX for Sales & Marketing IT at Intel, Senior Director of UX and Design at Apttus, Principal UX Architect at BMC Software, VP of User Experience at scanR, and Manager of User Experience at WebEx. Pabini has led UX strategy, design, and user research for Web, mobile, and desktop applications for consumers, small businesses, and enterprises, in diverse product domains. Working collaboratively with business executives, multidisciplinary product teams, and UX teams, she has envisioned and realized holistic UX design solutions for innovative, award-winning products that delighted users, achieved success in the marketplace, and delivered business value. As a UX leader, she has facilitated conceptual modeling and ideation sessions; written user stories; prioritized product and usability requirements; established corporate design frameworks, standards, and guidelines; and integrated lean UX activities into agile development processes. Pabini is a strategic thinker, and the diversity of her experience enables her to synthesize innovative solutions for challenging strategy and design problems. She is passionate about creating great user experiences that meet users’ needs and get business results. A thought leader in the UX community, Pabini was a Founding Director of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA).  Read More

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