Interface critique #2

For a user experience consultant, I don’t post enough material on my own blog, but somehow seem to find the time to post tons of comments on Webword, one of the best usability-related sites on the Net. So what do I do? I pester John Rhodes, the keeper of the site, to become a guest blogger and post links and commentary on the site. And John, being the naive soul that he is, actually grants me this access. Little does he realise how opinionated his site is about to become. So all you friends of MadMan’s Weblog (yes, all 3 of you), be sure to visit Webword every day and see what interesting tidbits I post there.   

Look Ma, I got featured as a “Net veteran” on Ma…? Ma! Come use that funny thing called a PC and surf the Net. Don’t be such a technophobe. Relax, computer screens don’t blow up like they show in the movies. It’s safe, I promise you.   

Damn it, this site is supposed to be about user experience – Content, Interfaces, Usability, Site architecture, and Business strategy. We need some dope on that, don’t we? It’s been a while since I last critiqued interfaces, so let’s look at some new awful specimens.

1. Scaring the crap out of the user

This dialog box appeared when I tried to uninstall ZoneAlarm from my PC. These dialog boxes are all too common.

Dialog box - Remove shared component

Exposing users needlessly to the innards of your system is always a bad idea. When something like this pops up, the average user (and that doesn’t include geeks like you and me) have no idea what to do. They probably have no idea what a DLL file is supposed to be. Slightly more experienced users might know that DLL files are system files used by an application, and have heard that deleting them can be dangerous. The geeks and power users know what  DLL files do, and what the common Windows DLL files do, but almost certainly wouldn’t know what an application-specific DLL does.

Here’s how different types of users would typically react:

a) Novices: What does this mean? What does this file do? The system’s telling me that programs may not function if this file is removed. Better leave it there.

b) More experienced users: This is going to remove a DLL file from my PC? Missing DLL files have crashed my PC before. What do I do? Better leave it.

c) Geeks: Damn, I don’t know what this DLL file does. Is it used by other applications? Will it crash my word processor? Will Windows start again after I get rid of it? I don’t want to risk it. Let it stay. I’ve got a 40GB hard disk, so space doesn’t bother me.

d) The guys who programmed ZoneAlarm: Hey, I know what that file does. It can be deleted safely. Hey, why am I uninstalling ZoneAlarm?

This dialog box scares people with an error message that threatens dire consequences – “If any programs are still using this file and it is removed those programs may not function.” It also doesn’t give them the faintest idea of what the file or component in question does. Except for the ZoneAlarm programmers, few would know its purpose. Users cannot make any kind of informed choice after reading the message.


Since most people are likely to press either “No” or “No to all” anyway, a better solution would be to automatically assume “No” while uninstalling the product and never show this choice to the user. This would leave behind a few DLL files on the PC, but hard disk space is no longer a concern in these times. If the file is not required by any other application, it just takes up a megabyte or two, and doesn’t cause any more harm. If, on the other hand, the DLL file is required by other applications, the danger of the user pressing “Yes”, deleting the file, and screwing up the system is eliminated.

That, however, is not the best solution. To really solve the problem would require changes at the operating system level. Microsoft should build a system that tracks which applications use a particular DLL file and also create a method for identifying and naming a DLL file with its purpose in the application. So, instead of the scary dialog box above, you’d see a box that says:

The following file will be removed:

Name: D:\WINNT\system32\Zonelabs\vsruledb.dll

Used by: [List of applications that use the DLL file]

File description: [A plain English description of what the file is used for]

(I’m feeling lazy, so I couldn’t be bothered knocking together a form in Visual Basic, but you get the idea, right?)

2. When Autocompletes go wrong

This is what I get when I try to type in the address for Webword, a usability-related site. This is Internet Explorer, a web browser. You’d naturally assume that IE would suggest the URL of the site when I type in “webwo…”, but you’d be wrong. Instead, for some unknown reason, IE decides to suggest the name of a text file that I created for storing some long comments that I wanted to post to the site. I’ve never been a fan of the “browser integrated into the file system” approach that Microsoft took with the operating system. Even then, an intelligent browser would check the URLs first for matches before suggesting a text file on the user’s computer. That’s common sense, or is it? 

IE autocomplete goes nuts

3. Of the programmers, by the programmers, and for the programmers

That wonderful Indian e-commerce site, Fabmart, shows us why interface designers should not be left to either programmers or clueless designers. An overzealous programmer, determined to prevent bad data from being sent to the site search engine, has implemented a JavaScript script that seriously harms the site search usability. Why? Because the script won’t let you search for anything with an apostrophe in it. Too bad. That means I can’t search for books like The leader’s handbook and The mind’s I. And what a friendly error message too – “Keyword contains invalid characters”. Apart from violating one of the basic guidelines for useful error messages, i.e., be polite and avoid “hostile” words like “Abort”, “Kill”, “Invalid”, etc., it also fails to meet another requirement of a useful error message – be helpful. Notice how the dialog box gives you no idea of what part of the search term was “invalid”. It also doesn’t tell you exactly which characters aren’t allowed. 

Fixing this error would take approximately 2 minutes of code modification. How much in sales are Fabmart losing because of this glaring error? Who knows? But it’s definitely more than the cost of fixing it.

Fabmart's site search - screenshot


4. When Autocompletes go wrong redux

Autocomplete is a wonderful feature. It has saved me a lot of typing time. But that’s no reason to get carried away and implement it everywhere, including, of all places, the File Save Dialog box. This is a screenshot of the Save dialog box from Windows Notepad. I had typed out an ad for a manager position for our apartment block. I wanted to save it as “Manager ad”. The enterprising Notepad, however, decided that it was very likely I wanted to wipe out an old piece I wrote on managing spam called “managing spam.txt”. So it helpfully supplied the rest of the file name to do so. Why? Where is the productivity enhancement in that? Do many users often overwrite existing files with new ones? Of course not. The busy user might accidentally press “Save” and have an existing file wiped out (and no, an “are you sure” dialog box is not an excuse. Most people ignore them anyway.) So why implement something with negligible usefulness but the potential for catastrophic and irreversible harm?

(Note: On further research, I’ve found that Notepad isn’t the only application that does this. In fact, it seems to be a “feature” of the standard Windows Save dialog box. Oh joy!)

File save dialog in Notepad has dangerous autocomplete


5. What the hell were you smoking?

OK, this isn’t an interface design problem, but it was so damn funny that I just had to put up a screenshot here. This is from the registration page of Indiatimes’s “Dating” service.

Indiatimes dating - are you a virgin (question)

I split my sides laughing! A question like that on a dating service? Who’s the bright nut at Indiatimes who thought of this?

Hmmm… then again, if people get turned off by that and don’t register, maybe it is an interface design issue.

(Note to designers at Indiatimes: Pssst… guys, if you didn’t resize the photographs of members to fit within your rigid dimensions, they might not appear so distorted and twisted, hence reducing their marketability. That hot chick doesn’t look so appealing when her face has been stretched horizontally to 1.5 times its width. ;)

2 thoughts to “Interface critique #2”

  1. I’ve read many articles tonight regarding the message, “The system indicates that the following shared file is no longer in use……..” I was uninstalling Registry Mechanic and this window popped up. I’ve seen it many times before and the first time I read it, I thought who ever wrote it did not major in English.
    Much of the feedback I’ve read slams Microsoft programmers for writing this stupid response and confusing the end-user.
    But the one thing I haven’t seen much talked about is what blew me away. The second part of the statement says, “If any programs are still using this file and it is removed…….” What In The WORLD!
    The first paragrapth says the .dll file is NO LONGER being used by any programs and the next paragraph says, “If ANY programs are…”?
    The whole thing counterdicts itself. It says the .dll file isn’t being used then it turns around and says it might be?
    You are right, a pathetic way to put it.

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