16 August 2007

How not to do it

Mark Liberman points to his own irreverent guide to using the web interface to FacilityFocus, an automated system for submitting and tracking building maintenance requests on the University of Pennsylvania campus. The irreverence is necessary, because the interface is appallingly bad. Consider Step 2 in Liberman's guide, which helps you get past a search page that also gateways the "add new work request" page:
You may be tempted to fill out some of the 23 temptingly-empty text boxes on this screen, with information like e-Mail (that's easy) and "Desired Date" (that one's a little personal, don't you think?) -- BUT DON'T! This is a search screen, and you've got nothing to search for yet, since you haven't actually gotten your work request into the system.

Yes, I know that it says "Search Criteria Required!" at the top of the screen, in red letters, with an exclamation point. But that's just to fool you into thinking that search criteria are required. In fact, the only thing that's required (or even permitted!) for you to do at this point is to click on the large button labelled "Insert" at the top of the page...

It only gets worse. The popups for specifying what the problem is, and in what building, are populated with pages and pages of codes, and apparently these can't be sorted (it's a little hard to tell from the screen shots). A column labelled PROBLEM DESC has unhelpful entries like "HVAC" (Liberman glosses this abbreviation for the users), "HOT," and "COLD." Does "HOT" mean "it's too hot" or "I need more heat"?

Liberman, who wrote the guide as if it were a handbook for an adventure/role-playing game, comments:
But adventure-game interaction is really the wrong metaphor. The designers of good adventure games have a excellent idea of what their target users are like, and they've carefully planned and tested for their users' reactions to each display and each event in the game. The obscurity and difficulty of the interaction is carefully crafted to be suspenseful, entertaining -- and eventually overcome. In contrast, an interface like FacilityFocus seems to be "mind blind". The obscurity and difficulty of the interaction is a random result of an apparent failure to try to model user reactions at all.

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