Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Bad User Interactions or Why Geographic Information is Important
The web is fascinating, chaotic, confusing and filled with examples of bad user interaction design.

In the days of mainframes, hierarchical menus were the bane of users. And if you have forgotten how bad they are, all you have to do is look over the counter of reservation agents at the airport or bank tellers. How many times have you heard the new employee asking an older employee: "Is it pF7 followed by PF3 to look up the account balance?" or some equally obscure key combination?

A classic problem that has reappeared on the web is the need to descend hierarchies to find what you are looking for? The problem exists everywhere. It takes numerous clicks to descend Yahoo's hierarchy to find a suppplier. And frequently you have to back up to go to a different leaf of the tree.

And from a use-case perspective, it's even uglier if you want to find two suppliers. Then you have to descend to two different leafs at the end of different trees.

In a more competitive Internet, where quality of user interaction is important, more companies are going to have go the route that firms like iiMap (www.iimap.com) have gone. (In the interests of disclosure, I sit on the company's board of advisors.) They start off with the question, "What does the user want?"

In many cases, the answer is that the user wants to know about location. Where is my closest supplier? What is near me?

In other words, I am here. What's nearby? This is revolutionary for the Internet, but actually it's returning user interaction design back to the early days of windowing. The breakthrough represented by windows and graphical interfaces, made popular by PARC, Apple, and eventually Microsoft, was that the grammar of interaction got simplified.

Object -- Verb - Action

I could point to a location, get a list of verbs or functions and immediately see the result.

Contrast the grammar to

Verb - Verb - Verb- Verb - Verb - Action - See result

in a hierarchical menu scheme on a mainframe or in Yahoo

Category - Category - Category - Category - See result

About the only simplification represented by Yahoo is the almost universal understanding that clicking or double clicking causes something to happen.

In a world where interactions need to minimized for commercial, customer satisfaction or user interface constraints (e.g. with cell phones or PDAs), simpler interactions are needed.

I am here.
I want a restaurant.
Show me what's close.

might be a prototype of such an interaction.

Interactions can be voice, keyboard or pen driven, but behind the interaction is the need to use geographical information to link information stored in other ways.

Alistair Davidson

No comments: