An Argument for Complex User Interfaces

Boeing 747 Cockpit

A Boeing 747 cockpit, a functional complex interface

Note: This was originally published on a Joomla blog in 2013. The details are outdated, but the principles remain the same.

User Experience (UX) design is an important aspect of almost every software application. Most users benefit from having a simple, easy to understand interface that offers intuitive choices to achieve their goals. Advocates of the simple approach point to surveys that measure how users respond to the design of an application, where simpler interfaces almost always garner a better rating.

The challenge is that not all applications can be reduced to a simple model. The current trend in UX design is to break a complex task down into a set of smaller, simpler interfaces, and then give the user a method of selecting or stepping through each of these interfaces. In some cases where a lot of this input is required, the user is guided through a sequence of simple steps to achieve a complex goal. This doesn’t work. It’s the opposite of the one-step checkout process that works so well for commerce sites, and we need a better solution.

This simplification and the drive for a “clean” user interface has become even more pervasive with the rise of mobile devices. User interfaces are dropping mouse-related functionality and adapting to smaller screen sizes.

While all of this is generally good and something I support, I think we’re losing something important. When we build a single interface designed for the broadest range of users, we leave other users out. The distribution of user requirements isn’t even. Every user base breaks down into clusters based on skills, needs, abilities, and equipment. Every time you tune your UX for one cluster, you run the risk of making it less useful for another cluster.

As a case in point, let’s take the administrator interface for Joomla 3.0. This interface is based on Twitter Bootstrap, which makes it responsive and touch friendly, which is a good thing. But let’s look at it from the perspective of a content creator/manager. After all it’s a CMS:

Menu navigation: In Joomla 2.5, when you hover a mouse cursor over a top level menu item, the submenu automatically appears. In Joomla 3.0, “mouse hover” is not a touch interface concept, so nothing happens. Desktop users just have to click, click, click. While the majority of new devices sold are mobile and touch, I think it’s safe to assume that most web sites will be administered from desktops for some time to come. This is not an improvement.

Article Manager: It’s clean, it’s pretty, it’s missing information. Want to find out how many hits an article has? Edit the article, then go find the right tab. Want to sort by hits to see what content is most popular? Go fish. Sure the control panel has a nice display of most popular articles, complete with a colour scheme that’s supposed to mean something intuitive, but if you want to filter by category you’ll have to find an extension for that.

Article Creation/Editing: Let’s look at the evolution from Joomla 1.5. Joomla 2.5 linearizes the title / category / publishing status fields. While this is useful for tab order (what, users with keyboards?) it creates a pile of white space that crushes the area available for the article. Various other details are retained in the accordion style tabs on the right. While I’m on the accordion tabs, the fact that you can’t open more than one tab at a time still irks me – why can’t I see the author name and the metadata at the same time? Meanwhile in Joomla 3.0 we have the title and category selection above the editor, a much wider edit screen, publishing details in a narrower right column, and image details below the editor. Everything else is now in tabs. Click a tab, the editor is replaced with the fields on the tab. While this is probably great if you’ve got a hobby blog, it’s got a lot of other issues. For me the most significant is that you can no longer see the article when entering the meta description. If you want to get it right, you wind up tabbing back and forth, cobbling it together a few words at a time. Visual simplicity is not user simplicity.

I hope these examples illustrate the point. What works best for the biggest cluster of users probably doesn’t work best for other clusters. It’s common to hear that one of the reasons WordPress is more popular than Joomla is because it has a simpler user interface. So we simplify the Joomla interface to address this, and not only do we have a pile of tabs that will still have users calling it too complex, we make it more difficult for content creators who know what they’re doing. It’s a lose-lose scenario. It’s also not particularly informed by looking at WordPress closely. With a SEO plugin installed, the WP post creation page has all the relevant information displayed at once. No accordion, no tabs. Lots of information in your face at the same time. Where WP has the advantage is that if you don’t care about SEO, it’s just not there. The interface gets more complicated as user requirements get more complex. It’s this scaled functional complexity that’s the key to the positive impression, not some UX magic.

Joomla should be offering configurable interfaces targeted at each user group, so that those of us who run with a huge desktop screen can see everything we need at once – just like the cockpit of a jet aircraft – and at the same time someone with less complicated requirements can have the iPod interface.

Image credit: SWF Photography used under a CC-BY-SA License.

Use an Ad Blocker to Improve your WordPress Dashboard UX

Easily one of the most irritating things about WordPress is the continuous attempts to up-sell in the dashboard. Here’s how to get rid of them.

It’s one thing to have a gentle hint, like Updraft Plus saying “hey you can get more features with the pro version” and a dismiss function that makes the reminder go away for a year. It’s more irritating to have something that pops on every login, and even more irritating to see something show up every time you are on the dashboard.

I can tolerate most of these. Sometimes they’re irritating enough that I just switch plugins, especially when they try pushing related plugins you don’t give a damn about. This is one reason why there’s no Yoast on my sites. The SEO Framework is just as capable, a lot less pedantic, and it doesn’t nag. Yet.

But what to do when there’s no alternative and the plugin is persistently nagging? Use your ad blocker to make it go away! Since it has just recently pissed me off, I’m going to use WPCode Lite, an otherwise useful plugin as the prime example. With a recent update, this plugin has elected to add a widget to the post edit page with the title “WPCode Page Scripts”. Cool! That’s a welcome minor convenience. Click on the widget though and what do you get?

Page Scripts is a Pro Feature

That’s nice, but for me it’s not worth subscribing. How do I dismiss this? Surprise, surprise, I can’t. Well, F*ck you, WPCode! I’ll do it myself. Now this takes a little knowledge of HTML and custom AdBlock Plus rules, but the general process goes like this:

  • Right click on the widget and choose inspect. This will highlight the general area in the code you want.
  • Look for the highest level element that uniquely identifies your target widget. In my case, inspect took me to a div with the id “advanced-sortables”. We don’t want that. There are a bunch of useful elements on the page that are enclosed by that. Drill down a bit and we find another div with the id “wpcode-metabox-snippets”. That’s the one!
  • Click on your AdBlock icon.
  • Click on the gear to get to settings.
  • Select the advanced tab from the left.
  • Scroll down to “Your Custom Filters”.
  • In the box below “My Filter List”, enter this rule, substituting your domain for mine:

You can also leave off the domain if you have multiple sites, but in my experience more specific rules help prevent long periods of “WTF” until your realize that the ad blocker is doing something you didn’t expect.

I’m picking on WPCode here because the arrogance of this has really ticked me off, but you can apply the same method to most other notices like this. At some point, plugin developers will take defensive measures to make this even more difficult and then we’ll have a discussion about writing user scripts in TamperMonkey and it’s kin.

Docker, Explained for “Old School” Developers

Docker, Explained for “Old School” Developers

Anyone writing code has probably seen a bunch of references to Docker by now. It’s like this new toy that’s all the rage, but for people like me — where picking up new things takes a crap-load more work than it used to — the general reaction is “I’ll learn that when it’s unavoidable.” Alas, a few weeks back it became unavoidable, and I’m here to report back.

If you’re even mildly inquisitive, a quick scan of Docker says a lot about containers and it’s pretty obvious that a container is some kind of virtual environment, but there’s not much that tells you why you should give a damn. I’m going to try to fix that. I’m not going to describe how to use Docker here, just what it’s for. There’s lots of great resources on making use of it elsewhere.

If you got into development in a time when your workplace had a nice air-conditioned room with raised floors and racks of servers and keyboard/console switches, then this post is for you.

The TL:DR on this is the learning curve here is a lot less than it seems at first, and the flexibility it gives you to set up and change configurations is truly powerful. Invest a few days in learning the basics and you can build, rebuild, and reconfigure virtual server rooms that significantly reduce the amount of time needed to maintain your own local environment. As a common example, if you’ve ever sworn at LAMP/ XAMP / MAMP configurations only to start from scratch or if you’ve tried to get two versions of just about anything running on the same system, then Docker definitely is for you.


Recollections of Depression

I’ve got this old, slightly torn and patched 100 dollar bill up on a desk shelf where I can see it. A few months back we found it between some papers and I didn’t have the slightest recollection of how I got it.

But now it’s coming back to me. I think a friend and business partner gave it to me to acknowledge the work I was putting into our project. I hope that externally I was suitably grateful, appreciative, and said “that’s not necessary”, all of which would have been true.

The project, and the acknowledgement, came at a time when my extended period of “mild to moderate” depression was well into “moderate”, but likely before I truly realized what was going on. I might have put all I had into that project, but what I had wasn’t much. My effort yielded a bunch of prototypes and some ambitious code that never saw completion. I might have been doing my best at the time, but I was all too aware that my best was a fraction of what I had been capable of in the past.

My internal dialogue compounded my funk. Was I now just too old to write good code? Was the passion I’d had since I was a kid just done with me? If so what next? I certainly didn’t think my efforts were worth much, certainly not $100. After launch and the first sales, now that’s worth a pat on the back and a nice dinner! Thrashing at a solution with nothing of production quality… not so much. No matter how sincere the effort, effort without results is difficult to distinguish from no effort at all.

No, this was an undeserved reward. Another testament to my failure to perform, something else to highlight the pervasive feeling that I had: I was afloat on a large body of still water in a deep fog, with a pair of good oars but no idea of where I was, where I was going, how far it might be, or in which direction I might proceed to find anything. There I sat, adrift. I might row from time to time, but it was never clear if the effort was pointless or not, if my limited transit was changing anything or just Brownian exploration. I am sure I stuffed that $100 someplace where I knew the chances I’d run across it again were slim, where it couldn’t remind me how adrift I was.

That was almost 20 years ago now. I had no way of knowing that I’d be in that ugly fog for more than 15 years, although with thankfully few bouts of moderate during its course.

Now I sit here, three or so years clear of the battle. [There is no way for me to say “there, that’s when I beat depression!” I just gain increasing confidence that it’s not coming back anytime soon.] I look at this old bill, not even knowing if it’s still a negotiable instrument, wondering if I should try to deposit it, frame it as a reminder that sooner or later if I simply persist it is possible to be free, or just slip it between a few papers and see if I rediscover it on a much later purge.

Whatever I do, there is no way to describe how I feel knowing that I am looking at this ugly beast in the proverbial rear view mirror.