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The day Bill Gates called me rude — and other lessons in user experience (jacksonfish.com)
91 points by hillel on Mar 12, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 47 comments

As a developer, I totally agree that we're often quick to reduce things down to a bland set of repeatable elements. I think Google's recent re-design (mail, groups, etc.) is just terrible and it feels like some engineer got their way ("Make every button use the same CSS class so we can keep it DRY!").

A healthy tension between Design and Engineering seems to be the best - sometimes the best UX isn't the most efficient and engineers need to get pushback on that.

Similarly, sometimes the "coolest" UX isn't technically reasonable, and the Designer needs to come back with something else.

Interesting to see someone else's perspective. I felt the opposite, the designers won out to the detriment of the UX in several parts of the redesign.

The buttons, for example, seem completely arbitrarily placed and inconsistent. Check out the difference between compose or replying to an email. Or creating a calendar entry or the full page editing calendar screen (and the two are the 'opposite' way round, it's totally fubar). It seems to be according to some sort of an attempt at 'page balance' that got abandoned in more complex elements to my admittedly untrained eye.

A red button seems to be intended to be the primary action on a page but again each part of the system is totally erratic on whether this convention is followed or not. Add a calendar event? No. Edit a calendar event? Yes. Reply to an email? No. Compose a new email? Yes.

Why do three little dots appear next to the check boxes when you hover over an email? How does that help at all? It just seems to distract my eye and doesn't actually help me distinguish whether I'm about to check the right email at all, the usual reason for hover styles. It's just pointlessly pretty that's turned into distracting.

The more I use it, the more confused I am exactly how the hell it got signed off. Bizarre.

It's an extremely poor redesign, there's dozens of examples that could be picked apart, like the way that when you're reading an email in your Inbox, the "spam" and "delete" icons are icons, but when you read an email in your Spam folder, they're replaced with text descriptions of "Not Spam" and "Delete Forever".

The change between the 2 concepts should surely have told someone that the icons simply didn't work on their own - nobody knows what the "spam" icon means without a text popup when you hover over it.

I think the dots actually appear to show you that the message is draggable. They're like a handle on the email. Now, the dragging feature is rather useless as far as I can tell, but the dots do make sense in that context.

That said, I personally like most of the new Gmail quite a bit more. It's probably because I get everything done with keyboard shortcuts anyhow and so care more about how it looks that how the buttons actually behave :P.

The designers I've worked with on web applications are often the biggest advocates of a good UX.

I have no insight into Google's process, but I'm curious if others run into cases where designers have limited sensitivity to UX (and ignore feedback about it)?

I dunno who did it, but I agree - it boggles my mind that such a terrible UX got approved.

The dots are the "grippy". You can use them to e.g. drag the mail over a label to move it there. In the old design they were always there, but now they are only showed on hover to remove "clutter".

("Make every button use the same CSS class so we can keep it DRY!")

Maybe DRY should also stand for "Don't Reduce Yourself." (As in avoid excess reductionism.) Not only should every significant idea only be expressed no more than once, every significant idea also needs to be clearly expressed at least once -- and not expressed as an oversimplified caricature.

> I started to question just how “beautiful” my analogy really was.

So did I... so did I.

I think it is rude to come out of the corner with such an analogy, it is as if you are trying to say he is stupid and you have to use wordplays to get him to understand.

Keep talking business, remember that it is business.

It's a real world example that highlights the need for different functions to take different forms. Its really only rude if you take it as a personal attack and not a basic use example.

I wonder if he had replaced the toilet with a sink if it would have seemed less rude or not.

It would have lost a lot of the "you don't want to mix these things" vibe. Some people have used a sink to shower.

As one who has showered under a faucet -- there are definite compromises involved!

True. I guess only using what happens when a, shall we say desperate, person uses a sink as a shower would be a "safe" way to make the point. It is possible to combine the functions, but not desirable.

I see that now.

It may be an imperfect analogy, but to call it "rude" seems like a stretch.

I think it's a condescending analogy, definitely not the way to talk to your CEO.

Respect for the sake of respect, especially if detrimental to getting your point across is highly overrated.

I respectfully disagree good sir!

Most arguments can be made so that the 'opponent' is receptive and thankful for your input. The arguments which cannot, are perhaps best left unsaid.

The idea that you should not make arguments that might offend someone else is completely absurd. Many times when you are arguing something there are a lot more important things than another person's feelings at stake.

When did you ever win an argument once you've offended the other party?

I've offended plenty of people, and I can't recall ever winning an argument against them afterwards - at that point, things like facts and customer benefits are irrelevant, and it simply becomes about not letting the other person "win".

The thing is, its not under your control whether the other party is offended. Sometimes there are objective facts and the other person is wrong. Say that you know if you push for your viewpoint the other person will be offended, but you know (and have evidence for) your point of view also. Should you not put it out there and fight hard for it because someone else's feelings might get hurt? What if Galileo had taken the same stance with the Church?

Yes actually it is well within your powers to control their offence levels.

I didn't say it was easy, but since when were humans easy?

Agree to disagree I guess.

It also depends on the context of the presentation - was he being condescending, for example. Standing by itself, I don't see it as rude, personally.

There's a bit of a stereotypical representation of "engineers" and "developers" between the lines of this article. I think this may be due to personal experiences from the author and possibly quite on target with the average "engineer/developer" of a few years ago...

I also think this is an outdated view by now, and it will become more and more apparent in the years to come: good/successful developers are/will be quite apt at dealing with "the notion of subtle and textured user experience design that balances the emotional and functional aspects of a software experience will always struggle to take root"

For the rest of the article: yeah, I feel you!

The laws of physics work differently in the electronic world than in the real world. In the world of computers, you can have a toilet bowl tranform into a shower head on-demand, without "spillage" across functions.

Thats what the Finder toolbar is, or the Ribbon, or the smartphone.

Seems to me that both Steve Jobs and Gates understood that, but maybe the difference was in their top lieutenants buy-in of the same thing.

I think software development is definitely getting "warm and fuzzier". I've always wanted to build beautiful interfaces (even though I'm not good at designing them). I always side with the designer that wants something nice over the engineer that just wants to do the easy thing.

Sometimes when I have a great big idea, I do this too. But I mainly do think while brainstorming outloud.

When I do this to my co-founder, sometimes he'll say "I get it, you don't need to try to sell me on it." In reality, I'm not, I'm just trying to navigate to more common waters--but it's a reflex that's not always helpful.

This sounds like what I do sometimes, only to your boss.

What's more interesting to me is how decisions are made

No reference to actual A/B tests as to what users actually prefer.

Great to know the most widely used software with probably the biggest development budget comes down to the personal preferencs of the boss.

So, no different than most other companies :)

Great to know the most widely used software with probably the biggest development budget comes down to the personal preferencs of the boss.

Bill's influence on MS software was dwarfed by Jobs's influence on Apple's HW/SW.

I've worked with designers who justify making multiple interfaces for similar functions. Frankly, this approach is almost always wrong and results in confusing interfaces and repetitive, difficult to maintain implementations.

Simplifying an experience to it's essence and ensuring that users learn quickly through consistency is key to design.

Bad designers are often quick to justify why two similar functions need different interfaces. Good designers understand that combining similar functions eliminates cognitive noise and creates the opportunity to add more features more easily and more understandably.

The author of this post strikes me as the bad sort of designer, one who views design as anything other than engineering and who justifies bad design with tortured "emotional" arguments.

Users are emotionally happy when they accomplish what they intend, understand and learn quickly, and feel confident they can repeat their result. Users are not happy when you force a single course of action through one-off behavior driven tunnel visioned design, leaving them confused and disoriented afterwards.

I've seen this before, and it is the product of egotistical designers caught up in their art instead of their users' experience.

Bill was right on this one. Windows interface sucks because it was not designed from the ground up with the user experience in mind by a comprehensive intelligent creator, not because it fails "emotionally" or lacks art.

Is this true in the design world? I personally like having many options, or multiple ways to accomplish the same result, as long as they don't get in the way of each other.

For instance, I would be sad if my phone only gave me one way to turn up the volume. Instead, I like that it gives me 3-4-5 different ways, all useful for different contexts. However, it would also make me sad if it wasn't 'easy' to turn up the volume.

Isn't it the designers job to consider all the different operational contexts and understand all the usage scenarios in all those contexts? And, to make its use 'easy'?

> Isn't it the designers job to consider all the different operational contexts and understand all the usage scenarios in all those contexts? And, to make its use easy?

People wouldn't mind if that's what designers did. And it's probably what good designers do - perhaps good design is invisible to most users.

But for examples of what bad designers do see the user interfaces of many graphics manipulation programs over the years. See especially "Kai" and their awful interfaces. Media players are similarly awful.

I don't mind if my one phone gives me 3 ways to do one thing. What I do mind is if that is different for every phone, even from the same manufacturer, and it changes each time they release a new phone.

> For instance, I would be sad if my phone only gave me one way to turn up the volume. Instead, I like that it gives me 3-4-5 different ways, all useful for different contexts.

Huh? What are these "different contexts" for volume on a phone? (There are different things with volume, such as a call vs the ringer, but that's different.)

I don't argue against having multiple ways of accomplishing the same thing - that should be limited but is certainly useful in many circumstances. The issue I have is designing different interfaces for the same feature because you can't think of a way to provide a common one for two use cases or user types. A classic example is wizards, which are terribly abused by Microsoft as an alternative to well designed configuration pages. These wizards don't teach the user how to actually configure the system, are often not reusable, and are only sufficient for a subset of use cases.

Another example is encouraging have customization of tool bars. Well designed menus and toolbars don't need to be dragged, dropped, renamed, etc. Allowing this confuses other users of the same software and makes fixing interface problems down the line nearly impossible without undoing all that customization.

Need to edit your user account? Do we need a different interface if you are an admin? Probably not - just a few more fields. Need a file chooser? The same one works for opening word documents as selecting a file for upload.

Most people have found UIs built by developers to be hard to use and ugly. Based on this fact, it's logical to discount approaches to interaction design that are rooted in software development principles.

One little thing I should point out about the UI design is that there is a fine balance & trade off between visual effects and performance. Often times, it is also quite subjective.

Take Vista and Windows 7 for example, you see the aero Window edge is roundish (especially top two corners). Now take look at Windows 8, as it is pretty edge, not round at all. Do you know why? It is really because Windows team used at least 5 rectangles, all stacked together to form that roundness for Vista & 7. That means it is more GPU cycle time to draw these duplicated rectangles to give such pretty illusion. With Windows 8, I do welcome the edge/sharp corners, feel more clean and snappy.

I guess Apple had a little different technique http://www.folklore.org/StoryView.py?project=Macintosh&s...

It has nothing to do with the perf issues. They're drawing way more elements with Metro now, anyway.

I love this. For years, engineers struggled to get designers what they asked for, often with substandard and inefficient results -- see the many hacks required for cross-browser rounded corners, for example. Now that support for such niceties is in full swing, everybody and their mom are using them, and it becomes faux pas.

I read a great comment on an article once that described this exact idea in regards to CSS3. The gist of the comment was "By the time the browsers implement the trendy design elements of today, the trends will have already passed."

Then again, I'm a developer, not a designer...maybe these trends (such as the apple-esque image reflection with a fade) will actually stick around long enough to be useful in the CSS3 spec.

> Back in the 1980’s when graphical user interfaces were new and shiny, Bill internalized many of the lessons that made those original GUIs work.

Out of curiosity, is this factually correct?

Which one, whether GUIs were shiny and new in the 1980s, or whether Bill internalized the lessons that made the GUIs work?

The former assertion is certainly true (I was there!), the latter is arguable, but even as an ardent Linux user, I'd have to say yes -- at least the engineering aspects (the more touchy-feely aspects, perhaps not... as discussed by the blog post).

Giving analogies mean 2 things: Either the receiving person is stupid or the one giving the analogy is bad at expressing his ideas.

Congratulations. You've just discarded about a century of fascinating science fiction literature.

We're bound by preconceptions, prejudices and simple lack of experience. Analogies, parables and other like tools exist to let us break free from those limitations. They help to see from a fresh perspective. They're valuable in persuasion and as storytelling tools.

Not to mention a large swathe of religious teachings, folk tales, myths and fables. Next thing you'll be telling me "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" is completely made up to serve a point, rather than a factual account of the issues facing agrarian animal husbandry workers.

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