Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘Design

Time to abandon Wikipedia? / Another site destroyed by poor design

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As I have noted in the past, redesigns of websites almost invariably turn out for the worse—it would have been better to stick with the earlier design. Indeed, there are some websites where the usability, readability, or whatnot was worsened to such a degree that I decided to abandon them, including FML ([1]), Etymonline, and the Daily Sceptic ([2]).* Also see [2] for a little more on the general issue.

*Links go to prior discussions. Linking to the site in question seems counterproductive.

Now, however, there might be a truly horrible problem—Wikipedia!

I first saw a weird misdesign some months ago in the French version, but, while being puzzled about the idiotic design, I did not dwell on the issue. (While I do use French Wikipedia, it is a far from everyday occurrence.)

Over the last few days, I have, again and again, seen a similar misdesign on English Wikipedia. Give or take, about half my visits have given me a page with the sensible old design—the rest, something absurd.

Apart from a different look-and-feel of the main page contents, which might or might not be an acquirable taste,* there are at least three overlapping** issues, with the suspicion that I would find more on a deeper investigation:

*It is very important to keep the difference between the misdesigned and the merely new, unaccustomed, different, whatnot in mind. That said, I am not an immediate fan of the new look-and-feel.

**Overlapping to the degree that I could have drawn the borders between the items differently or divided them into a different number of issues.

  1. The extensive old left-hand menu has been removed. Some of the entries appear to have no new correspondent, while the listing of language-versions has been moved to some type of separate element.* This has the considerable disadvantage, in general, that it is impossible to get a good overview of the available language-versions at a glance** and that it requires more steps to find the links to other language-versions. From a more personal point of view, I note that the other languages are much harder to get at without a mouse*** than before and that one common personal use-case now has so much additional overhead that it is not worth the bother: when I look something up in English, I often check the corresponding Swedish and German names merely by searching for “sve” and “deu”, respectively, and seeing what link is displayed (ditto, m.m., when I look something up in Swedish or German).

    *And a highly misdesigned one at that: It looks like a button but behaves likes a select element and/or an improvised menu, thereby violating one of the fundamental rules of design—element behavior should be consistent with looks. (Unfortunately, an increasingly common problem.)

    **A common use-case for less proficient English speakers is to open the English page for an unknown word and then to navigate to a native or otherwise better known language in order to read both pages in parallel or otherwise rely less on the English one. (While this does not apply to me personally, I do use the same approach with e.g. the aforementioned French.) Note the risk of building frustration when, for page after page, there is not just an increase in effort—but also a considerable risk that effort is put in in vain, as the lack of the right language-version only becomes detectable after effort has already been put in.

    ***I have increasingly abandoned mouse use, do not usually have one attached to my computer, and would, were it not for the many tools that are built under the assumption of a mouse, recommend others to follow my example. Not using a mouse is easier on the fingers and with the right tools faster and more comfortable.

  2. The left-hand side is now occupied with what appears to be the table of contents, which has no place there, is rarely helpful at all and/or is rarely helpful except for a first overview or first navigation (implying that a constant display is pointless), and which takes so much more space horizontally that the main text is both reduced in width and artificially shifted sideways. This is highly sub-optimal on even a 16:9 display—and could be a major problem with narrower dimensions. (A smart-phone used to show the same design, e.g., might have considerably more table of contents than main text on the screen, if held upright. The user would then be forced to turn the smart-phone sideways—a decision that should be his, not Wikipedia’s.)

    A complication that I have not investigated is what happens when the table of contents grows unusually wide, but the result is bound to be either an incomplete display of the table of contents (making the pointless even more so) or an even further reduction-in-width and/or shift of the main contents.

  3. The implementation appears to use some variation of “position: fixed” or “position: sticky”. Both are illegitimate, should never have been invented, and should never or only in very, very rare exceptions be used by a professional web-designer. Also see [1], especially for a discussion of “position: fixed” with regard to top menus.

What to do now? I have not made up my own mind yet, but in light of the deteriorating quality of and increasing Leftist agenda pushing in the contents of Wikipedia (cf. e.g. [3]; things have grown even worse since then), it might well be time to abandon the English version. The German and Swedish versions still (knock-on-wood) have an older interface and are not as bad in terms of Leftist distortions. For English contents, a source like infogalactic.com might be useful: this is a fork of an older version of Wikipedia, it still has the old interface, and it has to some (but insufficient) degree been edited to counter existing Leftist distortions. On the downside, it is sometimes out-of-date and receives less new content. (Other replacement candidates exist, but I have not yet had the time to investigate them.)

For those wishing to remain with Wikipedia, some experiments with “skins” might help, but these require the user to be logged in, which is idiotic for reading (as opposed to editing), as it allows Wikipedia to track any and all readings on a personal basis. It might also be counterproductive for Tor users. A URL parameter “useskin” is available, but will only affect the page immediately called—it is not propagated when links are opened, which makes it borderline useless. In both cases, the user is still ultimately dependent on what customization Wikipedia allows, which, going by general software/website trends, is likely to be less and less over time. The mobile* version is slightly better than the regular/desktop version, but not by much.

*Replace “en.wikipedia” with “en.m.wikipedia”.

There might or might not be a solution available over userCSS (or whatever the local browser equivalent is called); however, I have not investigated this, the amount of work could be out of proportion to the benefit, and even so trivial a change as a renamed element could cause a solution to fail again. Moreover, there is no guarantee that any given browser will support it.

Equally, there might or might not be a solution over some type of external reader program. This, too, I have not yet investigated.

(Of course, any workaround for the design issues will still leave the content problems. Cf. [3] again.)

Note on date and state:
The time of writing is January 20, 2023, and the text reflects the state at the time of writing. The future is likely to bring changes.


Written by michaeleriksson

January 20, 2023 at 4:11 pm

Second set of ANC-headphones half-dead / Follow-up: Some UI problems and other complaints

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While the construction work has been absent for a while now (knock on wood), the stream of frustrations continues, preventing me from leaving the mire of anger and depression that the construction works brought on.

For instance, about two weeks ago ([1]), I wrote about the usability problems with (among other things) two ANC-headphones, one of which was destroyed through being the last straw on a breaking back.

This left me with only one pair and, due to COVID-restrictions, only a limited ability to buy new ones, should the need arise. But why should the need arise. Realistically, several years of additional life could be expected from the remaining set.

Today, two weeks later, need arose:

When I have trouble sleeping, or when I am very sleepy but lack the self-discipline to stop watching a movie/TV-episode, I like to put my laptop on my bed next to my head, lie on my side, headphones on, and watch something until sleep comes—which is usually quite fast, making this a good strategy from a sleep perspective.

I have done so, every now and then, for many years with several different headphones. Hardly ever has there been a problem of any kind. Today, I woke up to find that the headphone-side connector of my Bose 700s had broken off inside the headphones. Trying to listen to something, I now have either mono sound or no sound at all, depending on my luck. Even buying a replacement cable, even if possible to a reasonable price (which is far from a given), might not help, as pushing it in might be impossible or do some type of damage to the headphones as the broken-off piece of the old connector is displaced.

Now, why is there a headphone-side connector to begin with? Presumably, because Bluetooth is the preferred-by-Bose means of connection—and God forbid that someone using Bluetooth is spotted with a cable dangling from the headphones. Then again, cf. [1], I have no ability to use Bluetooth with my computer,* making this yet another case of expensive extra-functionality that I have no benefit from and which, de facto, lowers the value of the headphones to me. In this specific case, note that a fix connection with just continuous copper wire could not have broken in the same manner, because there would be nothing stiff to break (and often a smaller lever to break with).

*So far. As I am currently on a newer computer with a newer kernel, a newer set of drivers, a newer set of configuration programs, whatnot, I might be luckier this time around. (But I have yet to make the attempt. It might work trivially; it might cost me hours of time and further aggravation and, ultimately, not work—and I do not want to take that risk right now.)

After I detached the cable, the headphones played some insanely loud music and began to pester me about setup this and download that. (And what the hell for?!?) Realizing that I might have to cave and use the Bose app to have some sensible functionality without a cable (if and when I get Bluetooth to work), I had a look around on the Internet. First impression: there is no way to download it without registration and without activating JavaScript. User hostile bullshit! A customer friendly supplier had simply had a HTML page list direct links to various versions, to download simply by clicking on them—no registration, no JavaScript, no bullshit.

What I need and want are regular, over-ear, quality headphones with strong ANC—and compared to non-ANC headphones, it is the ANC that I pay for. What do I get instead and what do I actually pay for? Useless-to-me extras like Bluetooth, telephony functionality, smartphone functionality, Alexa/Siri support, whatnot. Then there are the secondary issues like on-ear instead of over-ear and that easily breakable connector that a non-Bluetooth set would not even have had.

For my own part, it is highly unlikely that I will buy another Bose product (of any kind) in the foreseeable future. Generally, I might go as far as letting my next experiment with ANC (depending on whether I can make Bluetooth work) be an in-ear one in combination with (when the need arises, e.g. during construction works) earmuffs. (To be contrasted with my previous approach of earplugs + headphones.) These tend to be cheaper and less over-loaded with functionality that I do not need and/or that outright hinders me.

This, however, seems to be a part of a bigger, negative trend, where the high prices make the manufacturers throw on as many features as they can in order to justify the price, but where these new features drive the price even higher. (By no means limited to headphones.)

I further fear that headphones have moved from something for audiophiles (or, for ANC, those who wish to reduce outside disturbances) to a status symbol, which drives prices up artificially. Much of this is likely to blame on Apple and Beats, with their image based sales-tactics. Beats, in particular, might have more in common with Nike than with Sennheiser (or, possibly, the Sennheiser of old).

Other trends do not strike me with enthusiasm either. Notably, the big buzzword today appears to be “true wireless”. This sounds impressive—like wireless-but-better. In fact, it is like wireless-but-worse, because the “true” part merely implies that there is no secondary ability to connect the headphones by wire.* Notably, the trend towards a “smartphone assumption” is quite strong—not only is the user supposed to own a smartphone and have the right app installed, but he is supposed to use the smartphone as the source of sound. Do not dare presume that your expensive headphones should be usable with, say, a computer, a CD/tape/record player, or a portable (non-smartphone) player.

*To avoid misunderstandings, I have no major objections against Bluetooth or connecting this-or-that per Bluetooth—except for the problems with Linux connectivity. However, there are some more general advantages to a wire, including that the headphones can be used with an empty battery, that the quality in poor conditions remains high, and that the risk of someone spying is smaller. Then there are all those gadgets that do not have Bluetooth to begin with.

Finally, above I said “Hardly ever has there been a problem of any kind.” and I can, indeed, only recall two instances of problems (prior to today). These two issues are very similar and add further concern as to the true quality of these expensive ANC-headphones. The first was with my Sennheiser HD 4.50 BTNC, where the covering of the earmuffs soon lost quality and eventually tore, leading to less comfort and (likely) a reduction in the noise isolation. In contrast, all other headphones that I have ever used in this manner had kept perfectly intact. The second? My Bose 700s, where the covering of the earmuffs soon lost quality and has already started to tear. Who said that newer, or more expensive, was better?

Written by michaeleriksson

February 9, 2022 at 10:00 pm

Some UI problems and other complaints

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The last few weeks have been so horribly frustrating, between construction work, idiot politicians, absurd UI decisions, an extensive (and not smooth-running) laptop installation, a winter depression, and a great number of other annoyances and wastes of my time, that I feel like snapping. Below I try to get rid of at least some of my frustration. (Do not expect a quality text.)

Specifically, UIs will be the topic. The focus will be mostly on “modern” UIs and not always restricted to events of the last few weeks.

New laptop: My old laptop died a few weeks ago, and I have spent considerable time setting up a new one, while switching from Debian to Gentoo.*/** Among the various UI problems encountered, and two which made the early phase horribly frustrating:

*Gentoo has a more sensible approach, with the user more in charge and (by default) fewer conceptually flawed components. Out of the box, I now am rid of e.g. Systemd, PulseAudio, and most of the desktop nonsense. Debian also has a long history of interfering extensively with the “upstream” code of various packages, and often for the worse.

**Note that this has brought many issues that are not “someone’s fault” or UI related, but still contribute to the overall “annoyance load”, including e.g. the need to learn a new package management system or the need to switch window manager, as WMII, which I had used for a few years, is currently not sufficiently supported. (The tentative replacement, Awesome, is good, after some considerable config changes.) Another good example is that my longstanding personal configuration choices were never automatically present, e.g. that any non-configured Bash starts in Emacs-mode instead of Vi-mode. A borderline case is some odd defaults, like the odd insistence to shove a umask of 022 down the user’s throat—as if the average user would like every other user to have the right to read his every document …

The BIOS (UEFI, whatnot) has no generic “boot from USB” or “boot from CD/DVD” setting and it refuses to remember a device-specific one from boot to boot, implying that any (non-harddrive) reboot involves going into the BIOS, selecting the appropriate individual device for boot, and hoping that everything goes as planned—which is not a given, as sometimes even this individual change is ignored, forcing repeated reboots and BIOS visits.

The virtual consoles per default have a horrifyingly annoying blinking cursor. A blinking cursor is, in general, an ill-advised distraction and annoyance, but this one blinked at such a hysterical rate that it was borderline impossible to do any work. The alleged fix, “setterm -blink off” did not work, and I eventually resorted to a “setterm -cursor off”, as having no (!) cursor was better than having this hysterically blinking one. Unfortunately, this had no effect in many of the used tools and use of many tools, e.g. Vim, turned the cursor back on, even after leaving them. Eventually, I included “setterm -cursor off” in the PROMPT_COMMAND, causing it to be automatically executed after each command.

Microwave (Samsung something-or-other): In the long time before I moved “full time” to my apartment, and only spent a weekend now and then in it, I splashed on a microwave with a built-in “regular” oven-function to have a wide range of options even without a kitchen. While I do not remember the price, it was by a considerable distance the most expensive microwave oven that I have ever bought, in part guided by my strong earnings and the wish for some experimentation in price classes.* Apart from the (regular) oven functionality, which is surprisingly** limited, it is also the worst microwave that I have ever owned.

*I habitually to go for cheaper products and have made the experience that breaking habits, every now and then, can be valuable, because I often find something of value, a new insight, a better habit, whatnot. This could well apply even to price-range habits. (However, during my limited experiments, I have tendentially found that more expensive products have worse UIs and worse usability than cheaper ones—and are not always superior in other regards either.)

**Or not: As it runs from a regular wall socket, the power requirements of a regular oven might be too much to be safe, which could explain the restrictions.


  1. There is a barrage of one-button controls for this-and-that, e.g. to make popcorn. They have no practical use for me, as I prefer to go by the instructions on the package of the food to cook and as such generic one-size-fits-all attempts tend to give poor results in light of varying quantities, densities, and whatnots. Moreover, as they are icon based, it is often hard to understand what they are supposed to do in the first place. (Generally, I note that if an interface uses English, only those who understand English understand. If it uses icons, no-one understands.)
  2. The traditional (and vastly superior) dials to choose effect* and duration for the microwave function is missing in favor of a multi-step button-clicking: First, choose the microwave function per one button. Second, note that the (unconfigurable) default effect is 900 watt, while most food packages indicate 600 watt. Third, manually reduce the effect. Fourth, wait and wait until the indicator switches from effect to time. Fifth, manually enter the time with several clicks. (And, no, the time is no more saved for the next time around than the effect.) Sixth, start the actual cooking. This takes several times as long as just (if at all needed) turning two dials and pressing the “on” button.

    *Many more traditional microwaves have another problem here: The effect is not given in watt, but indicated with informationless claims like one, two, or three stars. Well, the package says to use 600 watt—how many stars is that supposed to be?

  3. There is a built-in digital clock, the setting of which requires the usual number of steps,* making it a hassle. But: even a very short cut of electricity, e.g. due to a single moment of power failure or a kitchen-internal move, resets the clock to 12:00**. This is the type of cost-saving that I do not expect in a machine of this price. Just adding a small buffer to keep the time for a few minutes would cost next to nothing in comparison to the overall price—and less than the pointless functionality that has been added.

    *I have only done so once, a few years ago, and do not remember the details, but the reader is likely familiar with similar clocks.

    **I.e. noon; as opposed to the more common 00:00, i.e. midnight.

    On the upside, this allows a circumvention of the time setting: Simply wait until noon and unplug the machine, then plug it back in. (Downside: I have to remember to actually do this, and at exactly noon, e.g. as daylight savings time begins or ends, which can lead to a considerable delay, often weeks, before I correct the time.)

  4. The usual alarm to indicate the end of cooking is present. However, where a typical and sensible microwave indicates the end of cooking once and then lets the user handle matters, this one is silent for a while, then signals again, is silent again, signals again, until the user has actually opened the door. Horribly annoying and with, at best, minimal value in return. To boot, the alarm is so loud and shrill that it borders on the painful.

    In due time, I found myself keeping a separate eye on the time, so that I could pre-emptily stop the machine a few seconds before the alarm went off—thereby entirely invalidating the reason for an alarm. (Yes, there is a setting to not ring the alarm at all, but no volume control and no “ring once” setting. Of course, turning the alarm off entirely could legitimately lead to misses on my behalf, as I do not catch it every time and as I can be very focused on other matters.)

Bose 700: To make the various bouts of construction noise easier to survive, I use a pair of Bose 700s, widely considered among the best in noise-cancellation—and bought at a price above 200 Euro. (And even that was with some rebate. The typical list price at the time was 299 Euro, or 300 Euro with sensible rounding.) As far as noise-cancellation goes, they are the best* that I have tried, and the sound reproduction is, at least, among the best. The UI on the other hand is horrifyingly poor. (Some additional negatives, from my personal point of view, arise from the strong focus on mobility, e.g. that the construction is “on-ear” instead of “over-ear”.)

*But note that “best” does not necessarily imply “good”. The field still has a long way to go. For instance, even with simultaneous use of these headphones and ear-plugs, construction noise remains very audible. I would further opine that ear-plugs alone do more than the headphones alone—at a small fraction of the price.


  1. The main control for the headphones is intended to be a smartphone app, which limits the users unnecessarily. What if someone does not have a smartphone? What if the battery has run out? What if the smartphone is in another room? Or, as in my case, what if the user knows better than to install various apps from sources likely to abuse the confidence?

    And why not allow the same type of control from a regular computer?

  2. The few “mechanically obvious” controls are too sensitive. Touch the headphones in the wrong place, e.g. when putting them on, taking them off, or making a minor adjustment of position, and something could easily be triggered. I am particular prone to accidentally touch the left-side control for degree of noise-cancellation, which results in a loud and annoying claim of “Five!” and then my noise-cancellation is halved. Two more (deliberate) clicks are now needed to give me “Zero!” and then “Ten!” and a restored cancellation. This is the more absurd, as I never have any use for them outside of the full “Ten!”. They simply are not so good that a reduced setting would be useful. Even if worst came to worst, the user could just remove them from his head, if “Zero!” was what he actually wanted. (Note, e.g., that playing music while at “Zero!” makes little sense, as the music is as likely to cause the user to miss whatever external sound he wanted to hear as the noise-cancellation would have been.)
  3. Volume (and some other things) can be controlled by a touch pad of sorts, located on the front of the right side. This had the disadvantage of being hard to detect—the user is unlikely to even realize that there is a control there unless he reads the instruction manual. (I did, many others do not; and it could be argued that the task at hand is so simple that it should not be needed. The need would, then, be a sign of design failure.) Most of the time, the volume control works well, but, often, it does not. Instead, I am met with a loud and annoying “Boop!” and nothing happens.*

    *Why, I have not yet figured out. It might relate to something like the temperature or dryness of my fingers, that they are recognized as fingers on the one occasion and not on the other. If so, this is so severe a design issue that the touch pad cannot be defended.

    To boot, when I am thinking or relaxing, I often put my lower right arm on my forehead. (Do not ask me why—it just happens.) If I do so when wearing the headphones, my upper arm often comes into contact with the touch pad—and a loud and annoying “Boop!” follows.

  4. Every time that I turn the headphones on, I have to wait for many seconds before I hear a loud and annoying “Bluetooth off!”. Only after this do they work, even when I have them plugged in by wire. (Presumably, some type of Bluetooth search is made, even when a wire is present, which is highly dubious. The loud and annoying announcement does not help.)
  5. The headphones are usable even with an empty battery, assuming a wire and with no noise-cancellation and a worsened sound, just like I am used to. However, this does not apply when charging. When charging, even the use of the turned-off headphones over a wire is not possible! This is a highly annoying and hard to defend restriction, which does not match the behavior of any of the other noise-cancellation headphones that I have owned over the years.
  6. If the battery runs low, the user is pestered with loud, annoying, and poorly pronounced claims of “Battery low! Please charge now!”. These achieve nothing but shortening the use of the headphones, as e.g. any music playing is suppressed in favor of these announcements (and few external disturbances are equally annoying). Note that there is no informational value to them either, as the effective use of the headphones is ended as the messages begin. (In contrast, a single claim of “Battery will run out in twenty* minutes.”, while dubious enough, would at least have the benefit of an advance warning.) What has any other noise-cancellation headphone done so far? Given the user the full run of the battery, after which he has noticed that the battery is empty and charged accordingly. Consider a car that turns it self off before the tank is empty, with a warning that the tank soon will be empty. How would the driver be helped by that?!?

    *I have, for obvious reasons, not checked for how long this annoying message goes on (but it appears to be for some time), and it is likely to be less than twenty minutes; however, twenty minutes might be reasonable for an actual advance warning.

    In doubt, some type of charge indicator per LED would have been much to prefer.

  7. Which brings me to the topic of LEDs. There is an indicator present, but it is so obscure in its semantics as to be near useless. Moreover, when the headphones are charging, we have another case of hysterical blinking. For obvious reasons, this blinking is easier to ignore than the cursor discussed above; however, it is still an unnecessary annoyance, and I often find myself turning the headphones so that the LED is not visible at all, during charging, making the blinking entirely pointless.

Smartphone (Android): If I had kept notes during my rare smartphone uses, I could likely have written a few pages worth on that alone. To give just one example, I often use the smartphone for Internet access for my laptop by USB-tethering. Turning this on the first time was easier said than done. Once on, it turned it self off again and again, every time that I unplugged the USB cable, and sometimes spontaneously during use. In order to make the tethering permanent, which I only found out through an Internet search, I had to enable the developer options and change a setting there. Absolutely inexcusable! To make matters worse, at some point, a few months ago, USB-tethering was suddenly turned off again, despite my not having touched the actual smartphone for days (i.e. no user action could explain this). It turned out that the entire developer options had somehow, spontaneously, reset themselves, and now needed renewed activation.

Sennheiser HD 4.50 BTNC : Earlier today, my Bose headphones were charging and I tried to use an older pair of Sennheiser headphones—for the first time in (likely much) more than six months. I had forgotten the exact use of the controls, and the controls were unmarked. There only seemed to be one candidate for an on/off button, however, based on layout and my vague memories. I pressed this button—nothing happened. I pressed it again—nothing happened. I pressed it for longer—and my soundbar went quiet as the headphones stole an existing Bluetooth connection! This is inexcusable on two counts. Firstly, any control overloading should be done in a natural manner, not mixing “orthogonal” concerns like “headphones on/off” and “pair Bluetooth” or “Bluetooth on/off” (or whatever this might have been). Two separate controls, preferably of the mechanical type, should have been provided.* Secondly, the headphones, the source device, the Bluetooth protocol, or whatever is ultimately to blame, should have respected the existing connection.**

*There were several other controls, none relevant today, which I have never used, because they appear to deal with e.g. volume increase/decrease over Bluetooth and I have virtually always used the headphones connected by wire to my old laptop. (Debian, at least, only supported Bluetooth and sound over the idiotic PulseAudio bullshit—and I was not going to re-infest my computer with said bullshit just to save myself a single small cable.)

**This the more so, as there is a risk of third parties taking something over. I note that I somehow managed to receive someone else’s TV (?) on my soundbar during early and failed attempts to pair it with my computer. (Again, no Bluetooth sound without the PulseAudio bullshit.)

Of course, both this and my attempts to correct the situation were interpunctuated with highly annoying and overly loud “Connection!” and “Lost connection!” from the headphones—not as bad as with the Boses, but really not helpful.

I used to love these headphones: Sound and comfort were both great, the noise-cancellation was very-good-by-the-standard-of-the-day, the UI, while far from perfect, was far better than with my Boses. (An on/off button is really all that is needed.) I would probably still have preferred them, outside of construction-work phases, had the earmuffs not been so worn down. Now, I tore them into pieces. Week in and week out of frustration, I could not take this last straw, and I literally tore them into pieces.

Design advice (very incomplete):

  1. Prefer optical indicators/indications to voice/audible indicators/indications. If you do use something audible, keep the volume at a reasonable level, avoid shrill or unpleasant noises, and make any voices used as natural sounding as possible.
  2. Be cautious with any type of notification and its strength. For example, only use blinking when you have a valid reason to attract the users attention—never for something that merely exists (e.g. a cursor) or to indicate a long-term state with no need of intervention (e.g. that something is charging). More generally, a signal that amounts to “Pay attention to me!” should only be used when and for as long as there is an actual need to pay attention.
  3. Prefer easily recognizable controls over more obscure ones.
  4. Prefer controls with a mechanical effect over a (solely) digital one, e.g. an on/off switch that is pushed between on- and off-positions over a “stateless” button.
  5. Simpler and more generic controls, e.g. microwave dials for time and effect, are usually better than less generic ones, like the one-push buttons or the elaborate choice dialogue described above.

    (Consider, as an analogy, a water tap: Would you rather have a typical modern tap with one control for water flow and one for temperature—or a set of buttons where you can chose, say, nine pre-determined combinations of water flow and temperature? Almost certainly the former.)

  6. Try to design from a user-centric perspective—not a designer-centric one.

    Note, in particular, that what the designer might consider important is not necessarily what the user will consider important, be it in terms of functionality or when notifications are needed. (Cf. above examples or note the case of focus stealing, which can hardly ever be justified.)

  7. Be cautious with experimentation when users might have expectations from similar products. If the users ask for a better horse, give them a better horse first, and investigate the topic of cars second. (Note that there might be quite a few things that a better horse is well-suited to do, but a car is not, like traveling a narrow forest path or handling impossible looking terrain.)
  8. Beware behaviors than can prove annoying over time (let alone immediately). This applies in particular to repeated efforts on behalf of the user (which could have been avoided by more sensible defaults, the ability to change defaults, or similar) and intrusive (e.g. loud or blinking) notifications to the user. (Also see excursion below.) Keep in mind that catching someone who is already at the edge can make even a normally tolerable event cause disproportionate reactions (note my poor Sennheisers above).

    As an aside, there are many analogues to this in other areas. For instance, I would give the two single most important rules of movie/TV/YouTube/whatnot music as 1. No music is always better than bad music, and 2. No music is almost always better than highly repetitive music. (Still, especially on YouTube, bad and repetitive music is very common.)

Excursion on repeating and unsolvable issues vs. anger and frustration:
If we look at humans during many earlier time periods, anger was a constructive and/or helpful reaction to many problems—not restricted to the obvious case of fighting. Consider e.g. moving a fallen tree trunk off someone, pushing a carriage back onto the road, removing a stubborn stone from a field, or similar. If at first you don’t succeed, get angry and try it with more force than available in a calm state. Fail again, get angrier. Even many interpersonal issues, short of a fight, could in some sense benefit from anger, in that the angrier person has a larger chance of getting things his way, e.g. because he creates the impression of being more likely to take a physical fight on the issue. (Note that I am not saying that such “interpersonal” anger would be constructive, in the best interest of the group, or, even, necessarily in the best long-term interest of the individual.)

Such anger has never been without problems, as there is always a trade-off, e.g. in that the carriage pusher increases his injury risk or that someone involved in an interpersonal issue increases the risk of a fight*. However, evolution will have ensured that anger occurs at least approximately when and where it had a net-benefit in terms of expectation value in older times.

*Actually reaching the point of a fight is usually a bad thing, which is why the perceived anger works—if the one party seems willing to take the fight, the second has to think hard about the risks vs. payoffs. Note similar situations among animals, where e.g. a stronger individual might yield in the territory of a weaker individual, or to a female defending her offspring, because the willingness to take a fight is large in the other party.

Now look at the modern world, where other situations often apply. If, e.g., someone has a computer problem, anger will rarely help, because a greater exertion of physical force is more likely to damage the computer than to resolve the problem—and anger makes it harder to think clearly, which is what is really needed. Still, the tendency to anger is still there, and when a certain problem or annoyance repeats again, and again, and again, without anger helping in the least, the anger and (later) frustration is likely to rise rapidly. I am, myself, unusually prone to this issue, but I have e.g. heard many a colleague suddenly type with several times his normal force, spotted him silently (or not so silently) curse over some user-hostile program or MS Windows, or seen him leave his computer to get a cup of coffee* with fire in his eyes on so many occasions that I have no doubt that the problem is wide-spread. (And it seems more likely to hit those highly computer proficient, possibly because they know how much better things could be without the many idiocies and idiotic restrictions of modern UIs, in general, and GUIs, in particular. Many failures to grow angry, here and elsewhere, are not so much based in a cool head as they are in ignorance.)

*A very good idea, as it gives some distance and relaxation, but one surprisingly hard to actually implement, as at least I have a natural urge to continue with the problem until it is resolved.

Similarly, anger in interpersonal situations is more likely to backfire today than in the past, be it because it is less productive or because any actually manifested violence, often even threat of violence, can be punished by the authorities—and not necessarily in an even remotely fair manner. Consider e.g. even the most incompetent and uncooperative civil servant* or customer-service rep: No matter how natural the anger, it will not help, because no actual consequences for the counterpart are likely, protected as he is by semi-anonymity, an often large geographic distance, and, at least for civil servants, a stronger power prepared to defend his incompetence with any means. Worse, any expression of anger, no matter how justified, is likely to antagonize the counter-part, who is, again, protected against consequences, but who might very well be able to cause further problems for the citizen/customer—by now deliberately substandard work, if nothing else.

*I have repeatedly read claims of civil servants being more exposed to threats or whatnots today than in the past. For lack of detail in this reporting, usually restricted to what amounts to “bad citizens harass poor civil servants”, I cannot say much. However, every time that I read something like that, I ask myself how much of the problem actually lies with the citizen and how much with the civil servant and/or his employer—treat citizens like shit and they will grow angry. Many of my own experiences with civil servants have been utterly inexcusable.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 26, 2022 at 6:22 pm

The common design problem of CSS and position: fixed

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One of the greater* mistakes in the history of the Web is the idiotic CSS instruction “position: fixed”. This instruction causes a piece of the page, usually the top navigation menu, to remain at the same position relative the browser window—instead of relative the web page. Effectively, objects counter-intuitively and annoyingly remain in sight even when the user scrolls.

*My first draft had “greatest”. Then a great number of other web idiocies occurred to me, including such astonishing mistakes as Flash (slowly dying) or the ability for a web site to manipulate the user’s browser history (long gone). Unfortunately, many of the collaborators on and inventors of various Web technologies have been idiots and/or self-serving at the cost of the users. A particular problem, of which “position: fixed” is a good example, is neglecting the interests of and control by the users in favor of the interests of and control by the web sites—quite contrary to the original spirit of HTML.

There are extremely few sensible use cases for this. In fact, of the top of my head, I cannot name a single one. They are bound to exist, but when someone who has spent more than two decades as an avid surfer and sometimes professional web developer cannot name one…

Unfortunately, it is used by more and more sites to implement use cases that are not sensible. Take the aforementioned top navigation menu: This permanently steals screen space from the actual contents of the page without, normally, bringing any benefit to the user. If the menu is present at the top of the page (not window) through e.g. a “position: absolute”, screen space is only lost when looking at the top of the page. After scrolling down, the entire window is used for content, and in the (for most websites) rare cases that the user wants to go back to the top menu, he can do so with one fell click of a button. Nevertheless, these insensible use(case)s have grown so common that it is almost hard to find a website who has not fallen pray to at least one…

This is particularly annoying, because modern displays are almost always* in the 16:9 format, which is far flatter than the old 4:3 or 5:4 formats, and many or most users are underway on notebooks that have smaller screens than desktop displays and often a lower resolution to boot. For instance, I currently write on a notebook with a screen 768 pixel and roughly eight inches tall—a standard reached by many or most “old” monitors in the 1990s (pixel) or even 1980s (inches)! (That my 1366 pixel of width would have been truly outstanding in the 1980s is no comfort in situations like these.)

*Except in the mobile area, where screen space is even more expensive to begin with and the negative effects are even larger…

Not to forget: These 768 pixel must be shared with other items too, including (in my case) the title bar of the browser window, the top and bottom border of the browser window (albeit minimized to 1 pixel), the browser menu, the browser tab bar, and the browser address menu. Many others will have even less space available because they have an OS-taskbar at the bottom of the screen (I have it to the left side) or because they have disabled fewer this-and-that bars in their respective browsers. In the early graphical web browsers of the 1990s there was less such overhead and correspondingly more horizontal screen space.

Take the recent, utterly idiotic*, redesign of FML: There is now a “fixed” top menu that takes up about 140 pixel. Add in the some hundred pixel used for browser bars (and the like), and there is roughly 500 pixel available for the contents (some other users could have less than 400 on the same monitor)—we are effectively back to the ancient VGA resolution! Combine this with a large increase in default spacing and font sizes, and a browser window now shows me two or, on the outside, three entries at a time. Before the redesign, there were twice or thrice as many.

*Other problems include poorly chosen colors, a hard-to-read layout, a chaotic navigation, removal of the paging, … The old version, in contrast, was easy to read, user friendly, relaxing on the eyes, and provided more content per browser window. It might not have won any prizes for avant-garde design; however, that simply should not be a concern for user-friendly website, which should focus on making life easier for the visitors. Indeed, the result is so utterly idiotic that I might give the site up—and had actually planned to make this post about FML… (I re-prioritized in light of encountering unusually many examples of the fixed top navigation menu today—not to mention a smaller-but-still-ill-advised fixed bottom menu on one of my other favorite sites, online dictionary LEO .) As an aside: It is truly depressing that most re-designs of websites decrease usability in favor of some ill-advised attempt to be “flashy”, “cool”, “interesting”, whatnot.

My advice to web developers: Never use this feature. (If some type of manager demands it, explain why it is a user unfriendly to user hostile idea.)

My advice to web surfers: If one of your favorites adds a new one, complain. The chance that someone listens is small, but it exists—and it is the greater the more people complain. (Complaining about all uses encountered would be an unrealistic task.)

Written by michaeleriksson

May 4, 2016 at 11:34 pm

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Further notes on WordPress

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As hinted at in my last post, I have been fairly active in exploring WordPress recently. In particular, my excursions into the blogosphere have, until recently, mostly consisted of stumbling onto various blogs during researches, often followed by just reading that blog from beginning to end (skipping entries that turned out to be uninteresting, obviously): This way, I have built up a great mass of read blog entries, but without any continuity, little “compare and contrast”, and no view of the writers side (apart from the very different platform of OpenDiary)—and my recent activities here have given me much deeper insights into WordPress, how different blogs come across, how the writers side works, etc.

A few observations (with a tendency towards griping) on the more technical side:

  1. The whole “theme” thing is done the wrong way around: The themes should not be applied by the authors to their own blogs, but by the readers. This would make for greater consistency, make life easier for the readers, and avoid many annoyances. An article on my website on Separation of content and layout can provide a bit more information about what I mean.

    As an aside, OpenDiary has the same problem—and there I usually used Opera’s UserCSS functionality to just override anything the diarists had concocted. (Note that the themes there are not professionally ready made, like here, but entirely the work of the individual diarists. The result is a high frequency of truly abhorrent designs, with extremely bright and contrasting colors, red text on black backgrounds, and other variations that make the readers eyes hurt.)

  2. The administrative area is abysmally slow—a price to be paid for the extensive functionality. In the weighing of costs and benefits, I am the opinion that WordPress should have been content with less. (Reservation: My time here is sufficiently short that this could conceivably be a temporary shortage in band-width or server capacity. If so, I may have to revise this statement. Under no circumstances, however, would I like to deal with WordPress over a cell phone or a dial-up connection.)

  3. For some reason, HTML text entered with line-breaks is distorted by the artificial addition of paragraphs according to these line-breaks. Really unprofessional: The point of HTML (as opposed to Rich-Text or WYSIWYG editors) is that the actual HTML code can be entered (typically pasted from elsewhere) and be interpreted in the same manner as if it had been written in a plain HTML document.

  4. The Snap previews of links are evil. Compare a discussion on another bloge. I urge my fellow bloggers to follow the advice of that post and turn Snap off. Further, I re-iterate my comment on that post that this is a functionality that should be provided and configurable on the browser level, not on the blog/website level (similar to themes above).

    For users, I have not found any foolproof way to counter this. I tried a few alleged solutions using user-side JavaScript/CSS, but they proved ineffectual for some reason; the same was true for the alleged solution in the Snap FAQ. (And, upon inspection the source code was sufficiently convoluted that it would have taken me more time than I intended to waste to reliably find the right counter-measure.) Currently, I simply have JavaScript turned off per default. This fixes the problem, but can have negative side-effects elsewhere. It may, in particular, be necessary to re-activate it when doing something in the administrative area.

  5. I am puzzled as to why the statistics in the administrative area have a piece of Flash were a conventional image would be expected. There may be some additional functionality present that is not possible with an image, but hardly any that would justify the use of Flash (evil!); in particular, when considering that normal links, CSS, and JavaScript can do most (all?) things that could reasonably be wished for in this context. (Because I have Flash turned off in a very categorical manner, I cannot say what this hypothetical additional functionality would be—or if there is any at all: It could well be that the contents are static, and that the developers simply find generation of Flash easier than of an image.)

Written by michaeleriksson

March 6, 2010 at 3:08 pm

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