The other day I was watching David Pogue’s presentation When it comes to tech, simplicity sells on Ted Talks about good and bad UI design, which overall was very good. However good UI (User Interface) design is not always as obvious as he makes it out to be, and sometimes it’s even very counter-intuitive.
For example, it’s very easy to bash Microsoft Windows. Not that I’m a “fanboy” of any particular operating system, at LandlordMax we work with Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, and Linux, so I’m pretty operating system agnostic. In any case, David presented some good examples of good and bad UI design, and in most cases he was 100% right. In one comparison, for example, he compared the difference between the shutdown menus on Windows and the Mac OS. The Mac OS definitely had a more obvious and easier user interface.
What got my attention however, and the reason I’m writing today, is that he also made a passing joke about Windows and how you shut it down. He said “Why in gods name do you shutdown a Windows PC by clicking on a button called Start” (approx 11 minutes into the presentation) which drew some laughter from the audience. I agree his comment makes sense intuitively, but he’s unfortunately wrong in this case.
Raymond Chen writes about Microsoft’s decision to use the “Start” button in his book The Old New Thing. It’s too bad David hasn’t read Raymond’s book or blog post about the decision to use the Start button. Basically it goes that in the beginning of Windows there was no “Start” button, they only added it after going through some usability testing.
To quote Chen (the highlights are my own):
Back in the early days, the taskbar didn’t have a Start button. (In a future history column, you’ll learn that back in the early days, the taskbar wasn’t called the taskbar.)
Instead of the Start button, there were three buttons in the lower left corner. One was the “System” button (icon: the Windows flag), one was the “Find” button (icon: an eyeball), and the third was the “Help” button (icon: a question mark). “Find” and “Help” are self-explanatory. The “System” button gave you this menu:
Arrange Desktop Icons
Arrange Windows 4
(“Arrange Windows” gave you options like “Cascade”, “Tile Horizontally”, that sort of thing.)
Of course, over time, the “Find” and “Help” buttons eventually joined the “System” button menu and the System button menu itself gradually turned into the Windows 95 Start menu.
But one thing kept getting kicked up by usability tests: People booted up the computer and just sat there, unsure what to do next.
That’s when we decided to label the System button “Start”.
It says, “You dummy. Click here.” And it sent our usability numbers through the roof, because all of a sudden, people knew what to click when they wanted to do something.
So why is “Shut down” on the Start menu?
When we asked people to shut down their computers, they clicked the Start button.
Because, after all, when you want to shut down, you have to start somewhere.
(Besides, if we also had a “Shut down” button next to the Start button, everybody would be demanding that we get rid of it to save valuable screen real estate.)”
The morale of the story, be careful before you start trashing user interfaces, there might just be a reason for some odd solutions.
And this was proved again recently in the post Learning from “bad” UI on Signal Versus Noise when Ryan walked us through the UI design of TripLog/1040. This UI at first seems to be horribly designed, with no thought at all given to it. But once you understand the reasoning and usability behind it, you quickly realize that it was indeed very well designed and that a LOT of thought was actually given to the design of its UI!
Of course many UI’s are just badly designed, there’s no question about it. It’s just that sometimes the obvious is not so obvious!