July 06, 2015

UI Fail: How Our User Interfaces Help to Ruin Lives

A couple of months ago, in Seeking Anecdotes Regarding "Older" Persons' Use of Web Services, I asked for stories and comments regarding experiences that older users have had with modern Web systems, with an emphasis on possible problems and frustrations.

I purposely did not define "older" -- with the result that responses arrived from users (or regarding users) self-identifying as ages ranging from their 30s to well into their 90s (suggesting that "older" is largely a point of view rather than an absolute).

Response rates were much higher than I had anticipated, driven significantly by the gracious endorsement of my survey by Leo Notenboom of ASK LEO!, who went out on a limb and assured his large readership that I was not some loony out to steal their personal information.

Before I began the survey I had some preconceived notions of how the results would appear. Some of these were proven correct, but overall the responses also contained many surprises, often both depressing and tragic in scope.

I had not anticipated the amount of details -- and in particular of highly personal details -- that would arrive in these surveys.

It was immediately obvious that many of these respondents were long frustrated by these issues, and viewed the survey as finally an opportunity to get these concerns off their chests. Much of what they described was heartbreaking.

What was perhaps most surprising was that a deep data dive was not necessary to see the common themes -- they stuck out like a sore thumb from the very first responses onward.

And many of the problems cited are solely our faults, our responsibilities, our shame.

Responses poured in both as first-person reports and as testimonials by family, friends, caregivers, and other persons acting as "tech support" (often remote tech support) for older users.

Any stereotypes about "older" users were quickly quashed.

While some of the users had indeed never had much computer experience, a vast number of responses involved highly skilled, technologically-savvy individuals -- often engineers themselves -- who had helped build the information age but now felt themselves being left behind by Web designers who simply don't seem to care about them at all.

While issues of privacy and security were frequently mentioned in responses, as were matters relating to fundamental service capabilities, issues and problems relating to user interfaces themselves were by far the dominant theme.

Some of these were obvious.

There is enormous, widespread frustration with the trend toward low-contrast interfaces and fonts, gray fonts on gray backgrounds and all the rest. Pretty, but unreadable to many with aging eyes (and keep in mind, visual acuity usually begins to drop by the time we've started our 20s).

Many respondents noted that screen magnifiers can't help in such situations -- they just end up with a big low-contrast blob rather than a small low-contrast blob.

But then we really get into the deeper nitty-gritty of UI concerns. It's a long and painful list.

Hidden menus. Obscure interface elements (e.g., tiny upside-down arrows). Interface and menu elements that only appear if you've moused over a particular location on the display. Interface elements that are so small or ephemeral that they can be a challenge to click even if you still have the motor skills of youth. The list goes on and on.

And beyond this, there is even more frustration with what's viewed as undocumented and unnecessary changes in interfaces.

For a user with fading memory (another attribute that begins to surface relatively early in life) the sudden change of an icon from a wrench to a gear, or a change in a commonly used icon's position, can trigger such frustration that users who could most benefit from these systems -- especially for basic communications -- become embarrassed and, not wanting to ask for help, give up and withdraw back into deadly isolation.

These were by far the most repeated themes in responses -- concerns regarding the rapid and seemingly arbitrary changes of hard to find, see, and click UI elements and associated menu/command functionalities.

The frustration of caregivers in these contexts was palpable.

They'd teach an older user how to use a key service like Web-based mail to communicate with their loved ones, only to discover that a sudden UI change caused them to give up in frustration and not want to try again. When the caregiver isn't local the situation is even worse. While remote access software has proven a great boon in such situations, they're often too complex for the user to set up or fix by themselves when something goes wrong, remaining cut off until the caregiver is back in their physical presence.

I could go on, but you get the idea. With subtle variations in details, I was seeing the same sad stories over and over again as I poured through the survey responses.

We have failed a user population that not only needs our services but for whom our communication services -- including social media -- can make sometimes critical improvements in their lives, especially in helping them not withdraw into isolated oblivion.

We could argue about the motivations, history, and policies that brought us to this current state of affairs, but I'm much more interested in solutions.

So I have a modest suggestion.

I would like to see major Web services commit themselves to the proposition of providing optional and easily enabled "basic interfaces" to their main services, alongside the existing "primary" interfaces.

We're not talking "dumbed-down" interfaces here. We're talking about UIs that feature clear menus, obvious and easy to click icons, and most importantly, that would be supported for important functionalities for significantly longer periods of time than the rapidly evolving primary interfaces themselves.

This is most assuredly not a question of halting innovation, but rather of respecting the differing needs of different users at various stages of their lives.

And frankly, I suspect that "basic" interfaces as described would be widely welcomed by significant numbers of users irrespective of their ages.

I have some detailed thoughts on how such basic interfaces might be structured and deployed vis-a-vis primary interfaces, but I won't bore you with that here.

What's important right now is that we commit ourselves to the proposition that we need to better serve all users, and that our current largely one-size-fits-all user interface methodologies are actively working against this crucial concept.

Thankfully, accomplishing this doesn't require any artificial intelligence breakthroughs or rocket science. It requires only that we agree that these users are important and that we allocate reasonable resources toward these solutions.

As an industry, we seem to be great at coming up with high-end services to better serve the young and elite.

It's time that we put the same efforts into better serving everyone else as well.


Posted by Lauren at July 6, 2015 11:23 AM | Permalink
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