Tag: design

More Lessons In UI Design

notebook beside the iphone on table
Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

When I work on UI design for applications I build at work, I try to make it so that the system won’t allow users to make mistakes. I don’t show fields that aren’t absolutely necessary, or options within those fields that aren’t needed for some important function in the context of what is being done. I try to make it as intuitive as possible, and though I always write documentation and help text for the systems, I try to design the UI to be self-explanatory. I put a lot of effort into this. I’ll use a recent experience to tell you why.

Our school system uses a Qualtrics app for health screening. Every morning, I get a notification–one for each of our three kids–with a link to complete the health screener. The health screener itself has eight yes/no questions that you have to answer. You tap a long Yes or No bar below each question. When selecting an option, it turns blue. It doesn’t matter which option you select, the selected option turns blue. At then end of the screen, you advance to the next page, where you verify that you’ve answered all the questions truthfully. After that, you get to a page with a green checkmark, indicating your child has cleared the health screener for school that day.

I’m up early and it is my job to do the screeners for the kids. I tap those “No” buttons 120 times a week, week in and week out. And yet, twice now–most recently yesterday morning–instead of a green checkmark, I’ve had a red X of death. Somehow, I accidentally answered a question “Yes” instead of “No.” This is annoying. It means I have to wait for the school to open, call the school, explain that I’m an idiot and accidentally selected the wrong option, and could they please correct this. Twice, this has happened to me.

The thing is, I am not an idiot. The Qualtrics application, for reasons that pass comprehension, allows users to make silly mistakes. An application–especially a health screener like this one–should never allow for mistakes like this. How could these mistakes me avoided? I can think of two easy ways:

  1. When answering the 8 questions on the first page, if you tap No, response turns green instead of blue. Green is good. If you tap Yes, the response turns red instead of blue. Red is bad. This is a quick visual cue to indicate how you answered the questions. If you see red, and didn’t mean to answer a question Yes, you can quickly correct it and watch it change green.
  2. On the second page, where you verify that your answers are true, it might be nice to display a recap of your answered, again, with Yes highlighted red and No highlighted green. Another simple check before you submit your responses.

If the Qualtrics application implemented even one of these two simple features, I’m certain that I would not have made any mistakes this year. Keep in mind, It’s not quite the middle of October. There has been, say 25 school days, which means 75 opportunities to fill out this screener. My success rate is therefore 97%. That sounds high, but given I have to fill this out for three kids each day, it also means that I can expect to make this mistake between 10 and 14 more times this school year. And I can’t imagine I am the only one making these mistakes. Which means a whole lot of frustrated parents, and a whole lot of time school administrators have to invest in correcting mistakes that parents make, when all of this can be resolved by any of the suggestions I’ve made above.

Why wouldn’t Qualtrics make this change? One reason does come to mind: Perhaps the thinking is that if “Yes” answers are flagged (e.g. “Yes, my child is awaiting the results of a COVID test”), it will discourage people from answering the questions honestly. I’m not sure I agree with this, but I could see it. Instead, the tool makes it confusing for sleepy, overworked parents to ensure they are selecting the correct options.

This is why I spend a lot of time thinking about the design and use of the UIs that I build in applications I make in my day job. I don’t want others to experience the unnecessary frustrations I have with software. I know how it makes you feel.

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The Simple Perfection of the Wristwatch

My current wristwatch.
My current wristwatch.

The battery in my wristwatch died a few weeks ago. In the intervening weeks, the watch has sat, lifeless, on my desk. In normal times, I’d take it to a place near my office where I’d have the battery replaced. Instead, I decided to see how difficult it was to replace the battery myself. I had the idea that the inner workings of a watch were so delicate, that the battery could only be replaced by a trained expert using specially designed tools.

The process of replacing the battery the battery turned out to be far easier than I imagined. The most difficult part in the process was determining what type of battery I needed to buy to replace the dead one. That involved searching the house for a magnifying glass that I normally keep on my desk, but which was nowhere to be found the one time I’ve needed it in the last few years. Instead, I took a photo of the battery using my iPhone camera’s zoom. It was a little difficult to get it focused, but in the end I managed.

The photo proved useless. None of the letters and numbers matched anything I saw in the Battery Center at the grocery store. I did a battery labeled Energizer 377 which looked right. Fortunately, I’d brought the dead battery with me and they seemed to be match. I bought two in order to save a future trip.

When I got back home, I gently popped in the new battery, and the watch started ticking again! I sealed it back up and strapped it on. It felt good to be wearing a watch again!

I am in awe in the perfection of design that is the simple watch face. I wrote about this a few years back. It is, in my mind, quite possibly the only perfect user interface ever conceived and put into practical use. I knew that Christiaan Huygens invented the modern precision clock, but I also knew that the design for the clock’s interface had been around much longer. I was curious about who might have invented the clock face. That, it appears to be, was done by Ibn al-Haytham in the early 11th century.

In the first place, the clock face is a circle with the hours and minutes marked off clearly without much clutter. One hand indicates hours, a smaller hand indicates minutes. Finally, there is the second hand which sweeps around the 360 degrees in 60 seconds. That second hand is what gives the feeling that time passes in relentless forward motion. Unlike any other instrument I can think of with a similar design, it goes on forever, lap after lap. A speedometer’s needle increases, and then decreases. Temperature goes up and comes down. Air pressure does the same. There is always a definite maximum or minimum that our instruments can measure. Except for time. That second hand keeps marching forward, endlessly, never changing direction, never tiring, never stopping.

Unless the battery dies.

When that happens, I feel unmoored. If I look at my watch and see that it is too slow, I can quickly adjust it. But when the battery dies, and the hands stop moving entirely, it feels as though I’ve come loose from the rest of the universe. I think this is why my watch sat dead on my desk for as long as it did. Time means something different when it appears frozen. Replacing the battery, seeing time begin to run again was a relief.

Over the years I have tried out different alternatives to a wrist watch, including 3 or 4 different FitBit devices. I prefer a simple wristwatch (analog, not digital) to all of these. I like the simple elegance of a device that does one thing to perfection. FitBits and Apple Watches do many things, few if any to perfection. Sure, they can simulate an analog watch face, but I know that I am looking at a screen when I see these. I look at enough screens.

My wristwatch tells the time. It doesn’t even tell me the date. (I can look at my Field Notes work station calendar for that). There is no alarm function. It does one thing very well, and it presents the information in as elegant a user interface as I have ever seen.