Falling Leaves: the Ardes blog

Archives filed under "user interface"

Car Warning Lights, Demystified

Ray Drainville

I’ve always found the various warning lights on cars to be a little unclear. It underlines the difficulty in coming up with fresh iconography, particularly when you’re indicating something a technical. Thankfully, someone has come to our collective rescue!

User Interface Disasters: CMS

Ray Drainville

We have a client that is part of a large institution (both shall remain nameless to protect them). Like many in such cases, they’ve had a CMS thrust upon them. I won’t name the CMS, but you might be able to figure it out from this screenshot:

Look at this from a user’s perspective. OK, we’ve got a nested system of some sort. What are the radio buttons for? We can also delete “publication details” (notice the wastebasket at the right). Below the wastebasket is a tickbox. What does it do? And do you dare click it? How about the “temporary save” button—why is this not automatic, as in online apps such as GMail & Basecamp?

Let’s look at another example:

This second screenshot comes from further down the page, from a list of publications. Clicking the “Switch” button lets you move the publication up or down the list; when you do this, the page reloads. It would reload every time you moved the position of the item (average page refresh time: 30 seconds).

Now imagine that you’re re-organising a list of, say, 20 publications so that the most recent publications come first in the list—a not uncommon task. Imagine that, previously, the publications were listed in order of publications (i.e., that the oldest one was first). To just move the latest publication, you’d have the page refresh 20 times. After each refresh, you’d have to scroll down the page to find the publication again so you could move it up one more position. Imagine that you have to re-order several pages’ worth of publications: now do it a million times!

After doing this for a couple of hours, finally imagine saying “Fuck it, it’s not worth the effort”. You have now reached the position of my client—and, indeed, the position of many people who have had CMSs thrust upon them.

A lot of things have gone wrong here. At my bitchiest I’d say that these screenshots showed the unholy marriage of Windows 1.0-style software design with all the flair of a Linux user interface. How did it come to this? Why was this software chosen? How do you get out of this situation?

I don’t have an answer to that last question, unfortunately—large institutions make their decisions on behalf of all departments & it takes years to move such a big ship. But I know how others can avoid this.

Let’s gain some perspective: CMSs became a big thing before the dot-com bubble burst in the early 2000s. They were designed for the browsers of the day—Internet Explorer 4 & 5, perhaps even Netscape 4. Any web developer will tell you that these browsers are pretty limited—and that support of legacy browsers quickly reduces the options you have to design an intuitive interface, progressive enhancement techniques notwithstanding. So, CMSs were designed in an era when you couldn’t have asynchronously-updatable data on a page—yes, we’re talking AJAX here. In other words, many CMSs come from a less technologically-advanced world.

Mixed in with this is the glacier-like pace of large organisations in their technological adoption. Years ago I worked for a university & saw first-hand why the technological decision-making process took years: often for legitimate reasons. For example, if you are running a corporation with 10,000 computers, it takes a long time to produce all the tests necessary to ensure that you’re not going to bring down the entire corporate system in your enthusiasm to adopt new technology. Accordingly, many corporations start looking at tech products & it can take years for them to reach their decisions. (NB: many corporations are a lot better at making swifter decisions now, but it’s a rare academic institution that has matched this quicker pace.)

So let’s recap: many CMSs were originally built in a time when dinosaurs walked the earth & this is when large corporations might have begun eyeballing their products. Years go by, the corporation makes its (now dodgy) choice & then the corporations’ employees are stuck with the result for years to come—perhaps simply to justify a decision that cost millions of pounds even when that decision clearly was a bad one.

A major part of the problem is the decision-making process: after a certain cut-off point, no other options may be admitted. This is unfortunate (to say the least) because in the meantime blogging software has emerged not just as a niche player but as a robust solution—which solves many of the problems that CMSs were supposed to tackle. Publication control & template-based “unified” branding cross-site are allied with a significantly better interface. Moreover, many blogs allow for “static” pages (in this context, pages note defined by the date of the post but by their content). And while blogs may not automatically provide all the semantics required for, say, publications, most blogging software allows you to delve into markup to address specific concerns—or have plugins that would address the concern—or (as a last resort), you can tag content according to its semantic meaning. It’s a very good solution that solves 90% of the problems which CMSs were to address.

Now this doesn’t leave our clients in a good place—they still have to use a terrible CMS. My question is: why hasn’t the CMS vendor updated the working of its CMS? At the very least AJAX-based tools to move publications (as in the example way above) would ease so much of the pain. A less charitable person than myself would conclude that they don’t care that their software is so broken, so there is little impetus to fix it. A more charitable conclusion would be that they don’t realise that the software is broken. Perhaps when clients don’t renew their licenses they’ll wake up.