Posted By Paul Kafasis on January 31st, 2009
Years of developing Mac software led me to interest in and heightened sensitivity about design. The way that users interact with software and computers is fascinating, and the more attention we as developers pay to it, the less our users struggle. Rogue Amoeba’s own products certainly aren’t perfect, but we aim for quality design. Looking around the world, I’m often struck by both incredibly bad design, and worse, a lack of any real design at all. This is the first post in an occasional series that will examine some terrible design, a series dubbed Usability Nightmares.
Usability Nightmare: Web Slideshows
Web slideshows can be found throughout the web. For the most part, they’re innocuous, simply presenting images and allowing viewers to click to load the next image. However, there’s one type of web slideshow that’s just terrible, and that’s the automated web slideshow.
As the name implies, automated web slideshows are those which automatically load the next image after a short interval. This slideshow on Forbes.com is automated, for example. It allows you to stop the slideshow, and slow it down or speed it up.
In a word, this is horrific. Let’s assume it takes 15 seconds to view and read an individual slide. With a manual slideshow, you view a slide and then click Next to manually advance. So at best, at best, the automated slideshow times this just right, and loads a new slide every 15 seconds. Just as you’ve finished, it advances to the next slide. That’s a nice thought, but it’s saved you precisely one mouse click per item. This isn’t exactly mind-blowing.
The much more likely scenario is that the timing is off, and it takes you less or more time to view a slide than you’re given. If it’s too slow, if it takes you 15 seconds to view a slide and the slide advances every 20 seconds, then you’ve effectively got a manual slideshow. You finish a slide and click Next, just as you would with a manual slideshow. You might never even know the slideshow is automated.
Far worse is if the slideshow is too fast, if it loads a new slide every 10 seconds. This is immensely frustrating. When it happens, the slide advances too quickly, and you must click Back, then refocus. If you’re lucky, you finish in time now, and click Next to advance. Two clicks that should have been just one, along with a focus shift that needn’t have occurred.
Near-Useless User Control
At some point, someone realized that different users needed different amounts of time to view a slide. The right answer to this would have been to drop the whole idea of automating the web slideshow. Instead, the user was given some control. They could pause the slideshow, and speed it up or slow it down. Pausing the slideshow is effectively turning it into a manual slideshow, though some (including Forbes’) will unpause after each advancement of the slide, forcing slower viewers to pause each time.
Speed controls, however, are useless, particularly those seen at Forbes. If the slide is advancing too slowly, you’ll increment faster one or more times. Without knowing how much faster this makes things1, you don’t know where you need to go. Perhaps you’ll have made things too fast, and then need to back up, and slow things down, wasting many clicks. Perhaps it will still be too slow, and you’ll need to click Faster more. Best case, again, you hit on just the right time and save one mouse click per item. Worst case, you’re clicking and refocusing all over the place, trying to get that right speed.
In design, whether on the web, on the Mac, or anywhere else, less tends to be more. When the iPod was first introduced, it was often criticized for lacking features such as an AM/FM receiver or wireless2. In short order, the iPod came to dominate the market, and still does to this day. This domination is due in no small part to that very simplicity critics derided.
With automated slideshows, we see the converse: More Is Less. The ideal test case for automated slideshows just barely beats the standard case, necessitating a mere one fewer click per item. Meanwhile the automation actively makes the much more likely scenarios worse. When that happens, it’s time to pack it in. Users are perfectly capable of advancing slides themselves, and doing so means your web slideshow will work no matter the users’ reading speed. Automated slideshows may have seemed like a good idea, but using them in practice makes it clear just how needless they is. Remember: Less Is More.
1. Hell, even if a time increment was given, it would still wretched. Humans aren’t very good with granularities of just a few seconds, particularly when it comes to knowing how long it takes to read or view content. ↩
2. CmdrTaco’s 8-word take on the initial iPod (“No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.”) gets funnier every year. Even now, when the Touch has wifi, it doesn’t do the wireless syncing he was looking for back in 2002. ↩