Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The high usability example: Gmail

Why is Gmail an example of high usability?

This happened in two steps, by sure. I imagine it like this:

First step, the idea:
The first step was a positive one, about thinking on behalf of the users, the inception of a useful product.
Remember: before Gmail we used slow webmail, with very little alloted space. For example I used Netscape mail because it offered 10MB, twice as much as the others did!
Also, web mail was cumbersome and slow, made with traditional HTML forms that took ages to reload completely making you lose the focus.

On the other hand we had the desktop mail, with enough space to store messages and with quick interaction. But usually installed in a single PC, unreachable from elsewhere.

The Gmail idea was to question this status quo and seek a solution providing the advantages of both web mail and desktop mail:
  • reachable from anywhere,
  • quick response,
  • lots of space to store messages,
  • and the innovative "conversation" newsgroup-like organization.
Second step, the implementation:
This second step was a "negative" one in that it was about not doing wrong.
Although the developers (I imagine) were conscious that they were challenging the model, they refrained from adding the many features that surface in such circumstances, coming out with a really clean user interface.
Those who are not developers have to imagine how compelling is to show the world a feature that just appeared in one's mind. Whatever excitement you imagine, please double it.
Yes, the team was led by someone with really strong ideas! Perhaps a woman, because women are much more resistant than men to the gadget kind of feature.

The result was an interface that anyone could use without special training, just having operated another email client (even the infamous Outlook) was enuogh.

Wrap up
The first step was to have a good idea, and the second was not to spoil it.
Gmail changed the world. After it's success all other web mail services had to catch up in a hurry, some of them did not resist the urge to add frills and came out with heavy UIs that their users complain about.
Gmail is so good not because it's Google's mail approach but because the team leader did not let features creep into the devilered product.
As I like to say, usability is the lack of defects. One can not add usability but take defects from the product.
Best of all, an application can be born with no defects, strictly sticking to a minimalist design plan. This is what returns the best results.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Today is "World Usability Day 2007"

This is the third edition of the "World Usability Day", comprised of a set of events that are performed all around the world starting in New Zealand under the motto “Making life easy!
This year's theme is "Healthcare."
The number of events makes evident the interest of the people, not necessarily usability-related people, on the subject.

What's "usability?" Uh?
In the context of last year's Usability Day there was a "Usability Hall of Fame" contest (web site now defunct) and you could vote for your pet usability feature. And the winner was .... a japanese toilet!

It seems that the toilet defeated the other features because it was green: it reused the hand wash water as flush water.
Albeit now everybody is aligned with Planet Care (including the US Gov) the greenness of a thing has nothing to see with its usability. The toilet is interesting but not the epitome of usability.

As we all know, the epitome of usability is Gmail, isn't it?

The Usability Hall of Fame contest made evident the fact that few people has a clear idea about what Usability is.
For example, many think that it's in the user interface design! I used to think that, for a while, many years ago.

The World Usability Day Celebration is useful in that it brings more people in touch with usability concepts. As soon as you look at a few of the events slated for today you get the idea.

Usability does not exist
What is real is the lack of usability. Over time, the things that now are notoriously more usable tend to become mainstream, "normal."
We can notice the lack of usability and act upon it, because it is a facet of design, or better: the final result of design.
Yes, visual design is desirable, and we enjoy it. But is is useless if "the thing" drives you mad every time you have to suffer it.

If you want a 5-minute briefing see "Importance of Usability," a page I just found. It refers only to web sites and usability testing, but anyway ...

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Gmail is a bit better

I just noticed that Gmail changed the way it reports that a message is being sent.
Now there is a green banner that reads "Sending" instead of the older red one. The interesting bit is that, after a while when one is about to start clicking all around, the banner changes to "Still sending" and one refrains from messing it all.
We users save time, as instead of cancelling and resending we just wait a little more.
Google saves bandwith, as more emails containing fat attachments will be sent only once.
Everybody is a little happier, and the World is a better place to live in!

This blog ...

Statement of intention

The plan is to share my perception of quirks and glitches found in the Google applications I use, like Gmail, Google Documents, Google Desktop, Browser Sync.
Along my career as a software developer I noticed that all too often we developers disregard the user's interest to favor software development considerations like reusing a piece of code or simply easing a development task.
Obviously in Google they strive to do things well, to be respectful of the users needs.
But it happens that every now and then a developer lets an unnoticed glitch emerge: the idea is to help them notice and fix it if they found fit.
Every small detail that could make the user's life better.

A counter example

Since day one Windows had a clock in the task bar. It displayed the time, and one could conveniently hover the mouse over the clock to see the date for a while in a popup like a tooltip.
Did I say "conveniently?" Why couldn't it permanently display the date too? Actually, it happened as of Windows XP many years after the introduction of the original clock.
In the meanwhile millions of people wasted millions of seconds (in fact many a human life) hovering that clock instead of spotting the date at once.
Well, the Google types are much more prone to receive and act upon thai type of requests. Also, Google's software distribution model "The Permanent Beta" is more suitable for doing small incremental corrections in their products.


If you think that something is wrong, or can be done better, please write it. Millions of people will be grateful, albeit marginally, and their lives will be easier and happier.