Wired is getting away with a major website redesign today in a way that The Guardian can only dream of. The grumble-factor of the inevitable ‘tabletisation’ of the technology site hardly twitches the needle compared to the public stoning that the British newspaper’s website received recently for its own makeover.
With this in mind, here are the five interface irrationalities that I’d love to chase off my own digital lawn…
1) The web-browser becomes a (stupid) television
Google’s Chrome browser started a very annoying trend five years ago, and one that seems counter-intuitive to good security practice – it dropped the routing protocol prefix from URLs in the address bar, so that by default, you would not know whether the page you were on began with http://. Anyone who needs their web-surfing that dumbed-down is probably not aware of the security certificate icon that reassures the end-user that they are on a secure website. Firefox is likewise guilty, whilst Safari on Apple’s OSX is only willing to tell you what domain you are on:
Clicking into the URL in Safari will reveal most of the actual URL of the web-page you are on – in the scant space the browser allows for this piece of information, which web UX designers seem to feel you do not need to worry about, even whilst security advisors warn that you should worry about it a lot:
If you’re a real rocket scientist, you can reveal the entire URL by copying it and pasting it into a text document, or delving into Firefox’s about:config interface.
In the determination to put the little-appreciated URL bar to some other gee-whiz use, it has become a default search-box in most browsers in recent years. Yet typing a URL directly into Google Chrome will cause it to mirror your input, letter by letter, when it has not the faintest idea where you are heading:
Like many browsers, Internet Explorer 11 believes that if you’re technical enough to need a menu bar, you’re the kind of person who already knows what a contextual menu (right-click) is. Because, similar to a default Firefox or Chrome install, that’s the only way you’re going to restore to IE11 the most common, useful and venerable feature in any desktop application:
2) White space, huge fonts, huge pictures…we’re all tablets now
Clearing the web-browser of all those pesky controls suggests an unwarranted level of trust that websites will pick up the slack and give you all the tools you need to interact with them. As Guardian users (who have watched a fairly usable website transform into a PowerPoint-inspired nightmare over an extended beta phase during the last 18 months) have recently found, it’s not the case.
Despite the increasing prevalence of higher-resolution monitors on the desktop (and even in tablets) and despite the new decline in tablet sales, being able to see a lot of information on one page is simply out of fashion now – the UX vogue adopts linear object-orientated-inspired styling, with massive headers, 50-point headlines and web-fonts which show up as Helvetica before they finally load and get their hands on your GPU. However, even The Guardian relented on the initial minimalism and monstrous gaps of its beta phase, launched in the US, finally toning down the white-space and bandwidth-guzzling pictures a little:
3) The scroll-bar: the new leper of the UX
The scroll-bar is a useful thing. Or it was. It lets you see how long a document is without exploring it, and lets you move around the document. Or it did. In OSX Apple not only hides the scroll-bar by default, completely reverses the scrolling direction all computer users have enjoyed since the 1980s and called it ‘natural’ (and so it would be, on a trackpad instead of a mouse), but also makes the damn thing practically impossible to handle. Only Tumblr has a more elusive scrollbar, which can hardly be manipulated because of its proximity to the resize handle; if you’d like to torture yourself with it, hit the ‘Edit theme’ button on your Tumblr blog and then the ‘Edit HTML button’.
4) Insane scroll-wheel acceleration (OSX/Photoshop)
This is an un-ordered list, but OSX’s scroll-wheel acceleration – introduced in Mavericks and unaltered in Yosemite – would otherwise be No.1 with a bullet for insane interface ‘innovations’. I have tried without success to permeate the mind-set of the UX designer who reasoned that if you’re scrolling a lot through a page, you probably want to get to the very end of it faster and faster, rather than be able to stop when you find something of interest. There is a fix for this, but it won’t survive a restart of your Mac unless you make it an item that runs automatically on start-up.
Ironically Adobe – which has made a career out of ignoring Apple’s interface standards – has also adopted this maddening acceleration in its Photoshop sliders. The ‘linear response’ model was not broken, guys.
5) Hiding extensions
This is a very old issue – the miracle is that it has never been fixed in the two most popular consumer-level operating systems, particularly since it is such a massive security issue. By default Windows will still not display the ‘dot 3’ extension (i.e. myfile.doc, or mypicture.jpg) at the end of a file-name. Neither will OSX even create this extension for a file you are saving until you tell it to, in the ‘Save’ dialogue box.
Yet 14 years after the Anna Kournikova virus took advantage of users’ ignorance about extensions to wreak worldwide havoc, Windows users still need to activate extension visibility manually – even though email-transmitted viruses depend most on less-savvy users who will never do this.