A number of people have replied to my post about with suggestions like:
"Just pick one."
“Go with your gut.”
“Choose whatever seems simplest.”
“Ask a User Experience expert.”
Those are all great suggestions. OK, maybe the last one’s a dud, I mean anyone who goes by that title probably isn’t, but anyway…
I don’t think these are acceptable solutions in this case. This is a different class of problem. I had a good sleep on it, and now I think it comes down to one important fact: Something trumps the right way.
What does that mean? Well, let me give you a concrete example. Let’s look at the user interface for browser bookmarks. In Safari, arguably one of the least feature laden browsers around, there is:
- a top sites display that 6–24 bookmark-like-things.
- a bookmark bar that can show about 15 shorter length bookmarks.
- a bookmark menu that shows a lot (there’s probably a limit, a high one).
- a bookmark window that shows a practically unlimited number of bookmarks.
- methods to add hierarchy to most of the above
Some might say that the developers just couldn’t decide which presentation method was the right one. Or that they didn’t have the stones to actually eliminate the other options. I don’t think so.
When it comes to bookmarks, personal browsing style governs which user interface is most useful. Choosing one method might be right for one group of people, but would be wrong for all of the others. Put another way: Simplification of the user interface would hurt most of the users.
Bookmarks defy simplification because a browser is a very general purpose tool. This means that there are many varied use cases. A single bookmark interface doesn’t cover them all — or at least a single interface has not yet been found that does.
Widely varying use cases is a good example, but it’s just one of many reasons why right is sometimes not good enough. Idioms, or the well established use cases, come to mind. Even tasks that seem simple can’t always be simplified if there are groups of users that are very accustomed to their way of doing things.
A good example is the email reply: Some may find that the right way is to always reply on top, or perhaps always on the bottom, or perhaps you like inline replies. My guess is that most experienced users have a preference and that none of the three methods could be eliminated without alienating a large number of users. Company standards, well worn habits, cultural expectations all play a role. All these things have the power to trump the right way, if such a way even exists.
Sometimes a revolutionary interface can break the idiom deadlock. But short of think different, there may be no solution other than a user preference.
I think some of these problems do have right answers, perhaps just waiting to be found, but sometimes I just like my way of doing it wrong.