Friday, March 23, 2007

Who needs a virtual keyboard?

Using new mthods and materials for UI ...

"Usability experts have long held that it's important to give users a familiar interface when you introduce a new product. This month Peter argues in favor of exploring the unique potential of the Web medium, rather than reproducing the limitations of physical objects in hyperspace.

During a recent snowstorm, the two largest Denver newspapers, the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post, gave readers free access to their respective electronic editions. As is still true of many primarily print media sources, the electronic edition of each paper is essentially a careful facsimile of the print edition, but delivered as a Web page. The decision makes sense in terms of giving users a familiar interface, but in practice this approach doesn't always work as it should.

For starters, what font size should such a display use? A font size that can capture the contents of a full-size newspaper on a 12-inch laptop screen will be illegible, but a larger font size will force the user to scroll in two directions to see all the content. Worse, the online edition has to make extra room for advertisements. I'm on a huge widescreen display, so the largest allowed size for the Rocky Mountain News came out to roughly a third of my display. Still, when I view an article, even on a fully maximized browser window, I get a left-right scrollbar for reasons unknown.

I've seen other interfaces run into similar issues, and I've come to the general conclusion that trying to imitate the functionality of a physical object on a Web page (or in any other user interface) can be more annoying than pleasant. This month, I'll look at the pitfalls of familiarity as a basis for Web design.

Familiarity breeds what?

Usability people love to harp on the value of using familiar interfaces to help users adapt to new products. While good in theory, in practice this approach sometimes does little more than breathe new life into bad ideas. Just because I've seen something before does not mean I want to see it again -- ever!

QuickTime's thumb-wheel interface to control volume, for instance, was abysmal, not because I couldn't figure out how to use it, but because using it was awkward and inconvenient. Thumb wheels are great for objects that you adjust with your hands, but they're horrible as a GUI element. QuickTime has since lost that particular element, to Apple Inc.'s credit.

Another example is the virtual keyboard. Used for input, these elements are consistently hated. The entire point of a keyboard is that you type on it. A virtual keyboard that requires you to type with a mouse is a poor substitute. Even the most untrained typist can type with more than one finger, and real fingers are much easier to aim than mice."    (Continued via IBM: The cranky user)    [Usability Resources]

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