Why Are User Interfaces Programmed so Poorly?

Many software builders are not applying the basics of Programming 101, so users get the following message: INPUT ERROR, you doofus.


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In the early days of computers—sometime after the invention of the abacus but before you could buy a computer next to automotive supplies at K-Mart—the user interface was a simple flashing cursor. The cursor flashed, the computer was waiting for you. The cursor disappeared, the computer was computing.

On what (or how long) the computer was computing, well, that was the computer’s concern. It was time for you, the user, to multitask and perform some vital business function like taking a coffee break, or completing a graduate degree, while waiting for the computing to complete.

After decades of technological advances, the user interface has evolved beyond this simple on/off signal into a maybe-it’s-on/maybe-it’s-off cacophony of video and audio, touch screens, and voice commands, among other interactive media. Computer geeks gush giddy over these rich interfaces for building software, but the final products often leave end users in the poorhouse.

Consider the hourglass, something you no doubt saw the first time you turned on a computer (and probably wish you would see much less). The software turns the cursor into a cute little hourglass, often with pixels of trickling grains of sand, to inform you that the computer is computing on your input and will respond… soon.

Nice idea, except when a broken user interface sets out to etch the hourglass on your screen for perpetuity. Or until the power grid fails.

Software designers have endeavored to improve on the humble hourglass by adding Time Remaining display boxes. When you copy a large file, start a download, or task your computer with something important that needs to be done now, the computer will try to keep you dutifully informed by displaying Time Remaining.

Instead of a counter ticking down the time with nanosecond precision, though, it is not unusual to see random digits popping up on the screen like balls floating in the cage of a Powerball lottery drawing. The counter may start at 60 seconds, and after 15 seconds it shows 80 seconds followed by 98 seconds…and 74 seconds…and 86 seconds. The numbers have a better chance of being next week’s lottery winner than the actual time remaining.

NASA scientists take note: Be sure the writers of that code are permanently blacklisted from counting down Space Shuttle launches.

In another flavor of Time Remaining, web browsers such as Internet Explorer and Firefox use a status line to indicate the progress of pulling down information from the Internet. The browsers display Waiting or Transferring on the status line at the bottom of the window followed by Done.

In many cases, though, Done means a “little done,” “semi-done,” “not-yet-done,” “close-to-done,” or “pretty-much-done.” When you click a link on one of these not-so-done pages, your clicks are systematically ignored for tens of seconds after Done appears on the status bar. Sometime after your incessant clicking has left the image of your mouse permanently engraved into the surface of your desktop, the page is REALLY done and the web links respond.

User to web site administrator: “Your web site has a problem. The browser said the page was done but the links do not respond.”
Administrator: “It was done but the electrons on the screen were cooling so they would not burn your eyes. Give it a few seconds.”_User: “Ah-ha, it’s working now.”

Rivaling Time Remaining and Done for redefining English language vocabulary is Percent Complete. Unlike Time Remaining, the Percent Complete counter does not increase and decrease at random but its behavior can still make you reach for prescription narcotics.

The percent counter typically appears as a progress bar with a value ranging from zero to 100. That’s good, so far. Once the program starts churning, it may suddenly and without warning take a sabbatical at – well depending on the phase of the moon – say 35%.

Or, having reached 100%, it may decide it has earned a sabbatical and the program pauses for a period exceeding a Super Bowl half-time before unceremoniously exiting.

Entering a Date?

On the input side of the user interface, computers still have a long way to go to demonstrate the existence of artificial intelligence. Case in point: entering a date.

In the ‘premium’ version of one of the leading tax software packages, the software insists that you enter ten characters in the format MM/DD/YYYY when you enter a date for the sale of a stock. Will the software accept 9/14 as an abbreviation for September 14? Nooo. Will it accept 09/14? Nooo. Will it even accept 09/14/08 when you are running the software to prepare your 2008 taxes? Nooo.

What any person with an IQ greater than your average crustacean would recognize as an abbreviated date will not be accepted. YOU MUST ENTER 09/14/2008. After all, 09/14 may have meant 09/14/1908 for those filing amended returns for great-great-great grandparents; or 09/14/2108 for those who like to pay their taxes a century in advance; or 09/14/1508 if you’re Christopher Columbus.

While we may never know what team of experts decided on the whole-date-and-nothing-but-the-whole-date scheme, it’s obvious that many businesses with e-commerce web sites design them in consultation with medical practitioners who profit from the treatment of eye ailments. The tell-tale sign is how credit card numbers are entered, something that probably occurred a thousand times on the Internet in the seconds it took you to read this sentence.

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Tags: browsers, programming, development

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