Wednesday, March 5th, 2008
Saving developer time, maximizing user confusion
2001 must have been a busy year in Redmond. Apparently, everyone at Microsoft had a lot to do: New features, new products, you name it. In fact, they had so much to do that the developers thought "how can we save some time at implementing all the stuff we want to put into Internet Explorer 6?" Introducing a strict rendering mode? Certainly a good idea, but not much time to save there. Fixing old rendering bugs? Nah, wasn’t part of the project map to begin with. But what about the user options? Ah, we are getting closer.
Whenever you make software customizable, whenever you give the user a choice, you have to come up with a way for the user to specify his wishes. But as options change and expand, it can become quite a bit of work to design good dialogs for user preferences. Isn’t there an easier way to deal with that? Something, that leaves next to no work to the developer? There certainly is, and Microsoft went down that path. Microsoft proudly presents: "Turn a list of technical flags into confusing options"&tm;
On the right we can see what they came up with. I stitched this one together so that you can see all the options together. This one is from the German version, though, but feel free to go your own IE to see it for yourself in your language.
Let’s start with the general: The dialog has so many options, that they don’t fit in the dialog. Well, maybe if we enlarge it? Naaat – its not resizable. But Microsoft was kind enough to offer some handy scrollbars. Though I hate the vertical scrollbar already (makes you be afraid of what other hideous options lurk below), the horizontal scrollbar is a clear indication of symptom fixing. Is it possible that the options are simply too complicated if you need more space than provided to display them?
Let’s make a note here: Lists of checkboxes do not belong into something that needs horizontal scrolling. Nobody likes horizontal scrolling, and for good reason, too. It destroys readability (unlike vertical scrolling, you need to scroll twice per line instead of once per page for vertical scrolling) and many input devices don’t support it well either (there are only very few horizontal scroll wheels, for example).
Next: The options are grouped. Now, that’s generally a good idea, because it gives the user some orientation on where to find what in this long, long list. But our friends from Redmond screwed that one up, too: The grouping is ambiguous, confusing and at times just wrong. Here are some examples to think about:
- Since when is “Check for updates” (the very first option!) related to its group “Browsing”? The same goes for “Display Internet Explorer on the Desktop” – that option shouldn’t even be there, as it should be a property of the desktop in the first place – or not even that, as a simple link would suffice.
- Why do we have an option “Use optimized image flow” under “Browsing” and another one “Use optimized flow of images” under “Multimedia” – is there a difference?
- Most options under “Multimedia” seem to affect the general browsing experience of the user – maybe they should appear under “Browsing” then? But I can just imagine the reason. Over there is the team for the general rendering engine, and over here is the team for multimedia stuff. Let everyone have his own set of options, let’s not talk to each other. Certainly the user appreciates this transparent approach to design.
- Why is there a group “Searching in the address field” that contains exactly one item: Another group called “While Searching”? Have there once been options for searching that were used before or after searching, but not while doing it? Here is a general rule in interface design: If you have some hierarchy, there is no reason whatsoever to have some static structure where one level is populated by exactly one item! Every time that happens, some level can be eliminated without loss.
Note beside: This also goes for the Start-Menu, where you often find structures like “Start > Programs > Greatest, but largely unknown software company of all times > One and only product from that company > Start the damn thing.” Why not have it start from two levels further above?
And there are a lot of other details in here that makes you wonder, if they ever think about the user while working on their software:
- The options differ greatly in technical depth. While some options are of interest to the general user, others require far more technical knowledge and will only be used by expert users. But Microsoft has thrown them nicely mixed into one long list. My favourites: “Show images” versus “Show short HTTP error messages”. Can you spot the one for experts?
- The “Show Go To button on the address bar” is a nice bad example for “Don’t use single options if you could solve this much more generally”. Most browsers nowadays support a very flexible configuration of all buttons on all bars – not just that one button that Microsoft thought might be undesirable. BTW: What does the Button add to, anyway?
- Underline links: Could be a nice feature. Too bad, it doesn’t work. If you have selected “Always” IE will underline links. Unless of course the web designer has specified how to display links, which is the case for most web sites nowadays. But then, it’s probably better that way, anyhow.
- Why does IE need a restart if I want to send my URLs as UTF-8? This gives quite a bit of insight on the inner workings of this “fine” product.
- There is no consistent order or grouping: Why are the options for displaying animations, images, sound and videos separated at all?
- Some options are assertive, others disabling, for example “Show script errors”, but “Deactivate script debugging” – huh?
You know what? I could go on for hours rambling about that dialog. There is next to no option that is well formulated and placed accordingly. But instead I give you an example of how to improve things:
This is just a quick hack in HTML, and it doesn't do anything about the sheer number of options, but you can quickly see the much more intuitive grouping and labeling of options.
How’s that, Redmond?
P.S.: This article refers to IE 6.0, which took its option dialog from earlier versions. I was really surprised to see that even IE 7.0 still uses the same bad approach to options, so this article is still of relevance. Has anyone tried IE 8.0 Beta yet?
March 5, 2008 7:41 PM
Very entertaining! As I never had the affection to IE, I never used it but for explaining things to my parents.IE was never intuitive and I always dreamed of an option "Clean up GUI" such that I could add function step by step.
Ron, to prettify your proposal, add option/link/button "Expert mode" to simplify the dialogue.
IE8??? Damn, they won't stop vexing us, will they?