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Tag: UI

Don’t let a modern user interface coddle you with easy-to-identify-buttons—demand a confusing and unlabeled mystery zone of wonders!

Background:

It is often recommended that pet owners buy “challenging” toys to keep their pets mentally stimulated in a world where the owners take care of all the pet’s needs.

Although an owner could simply put a dog biscuit in a bowl, it would be more exciting for the dog if the biscuit were inside a difficult-to-open ball that required the dog to work to figure it out.

The issue:

Similarly, modern automation has removed many elements of daily life that were once mentally challenging. For example, turn-by-turn directions make it theoretically possible for a person to go through life without ever learning how to read a map.

Proposed idea, which has already been implemented:

A long time ago, any user interface elements on a computer were clearly marked: a button would have a thick border around it, a link would be underlined in blue, etc.

Unfortunately, this sort of coddling may cause the human species to become helpless and incapable.

What is needed is an unforgiving type of interface that does not clearly label elements that accept user input: this will force humans to become better at remembering things.

A case study is available in Figure 1. Can you figure out what is, and is not, an interactable UI element?

Android Guess The Button 1.png

Fig. 1: In order to prevent the user’s brain from atrophying due to lack of use, Google has developed a settings screen for Android that has no visual indication of what is and is not a button. Try puzzling through it yourself: can you guess what tapping on each element would do? Answers in Figure 2. This screenshot is from Android 9, but the situation is identical in Android 10 (2019).

 

Android Guess The Button 2_answers.png

Fig. 2: Answers: BLUE is a normal app button and GREEN is a user-interface-related button. The two red rectangles indicate “buttons” that highlight when clicked, but do nothing otherwise (it is theoretically possible that they do something on other phones).

Google shouldn’t get all there credit here, though: the idea of making a complex swiping-puzzle-based interface was arguably pioneered by Apple. If you don’t believe it, find someone with an iPad and ask them to activate the multiple-apps-on-the-same-screen mode: you’ll be amazed by the quality and difficulty of this puzzle!

Conclusion:

With the addition of unlabeled user interface elements and a huge array of “swipe” gestures, modern phones—both iPhones and Android phones—are adding a new category of exciting brain-challenging puzzles to everyday life.

PROS: It is theoretically possible that a user who plays these memory games with their phone will become better at crucial memorization and concentration-based tasks (although there is zero evidence of this, but it seems intuitively appealing, which is good enough here).

CONS: None!

Actually use your phone / computer’s much-hyped voice assistant feature for something other than playing music and setting calendar invites? Dream the impossible dream.

Background:

Voice recognition has existed in somewhat passable form since the late 1990s. But recently it has become more prominent with Apple Siri, the “OK Google” voice assistant, and Amazon Alexa.

The issue:

However, these products are all incredibly limited, and can perform almost no actions beyond a few hard-coded ones that were added at release.

The last 5 years of “voice assistant” development have mainly been focused on extremely specific items of potential commercial interest (e.g. “now you can ask about baseball scores or movie showtimes”), rather than adding core functionality.

If you want to do something besides play music, interact with your calendar, or set a timer, then using a voice assistant is an exercise in frustration.

Proposal:

At every company with a voice assistant division, all senior engineers should have a recurring Monday task where they have to:

  • Find the #1 query that users ask for that is both 1) reasonable and 2) totally un-answerable by the system.
  • Add a response to that query the ever-growing list of hard-coded phrases that the system recognizes.

To assist, I have run through a list of plausible and reasonable queries to test Siri on iOS 11 and “OK Google” on Android 8, and have provided screenshots of the equivalent queries and disastrous results below. They are divided by category.

CALCULATOR: BASIC

  • “What’s 2 + 2”
    • Google: SUCCESS
    • iOS: SUCCESS
  • “What’s 10 factorial?”
    • Google: SUCCESS (“10 factorial = 3 628 800”)
    • iOS: SUCCESS (“The answer is 3628800.”)
    • 001CALC-1b-calculator-10-factorial
  • “Open the calculator”:
    • Google: Failure (Redirects to a “install this third-party calculator app!” link, despite the default Android Calculator app already being present.)
    • iOS: Failure on iPad (but, similarly provides an app-store link where a third-party calculator could be downloaded.)
    • 001CALC-1c-calculator-open

BASIC APP INTERACTION:

  • “Redo my last question.”
    • Google: Failure (Gives the results of an irrelevant web search).
    • iOS: Failure (“Sorry, [your name], we don’t seem to be navigating anywhere”)
    • 005APP-1-1z01-redo-my-last-question
  • “Clear my browsing history for the last one hour.”
    • Google: Partial success (It says “No problem!” but then directs you to a link with instructions to do it yourself.)

    • iOS: Failure (“I didn’t find any appointments about ‘Browser history.’ “
    • Apparently, Siri interpreted this as a request to clear a calendar event.)
    • 005APP-2-1z02-history-browser-clear
  • “How many new mail messages did I get today?”
    • Google: Failure (Shows a list of recent emails, but does not count them.)
    • iOS: SUCCESS (“Seven new emails were received today.”)
    • 005APP-3-1z03-mail-1-partial-success
  • “Are there any new podcasts?”
    • Google: Failure (Provides irrelevant web search results.)
    • iOS: Failure (“Playing podcasts, starting with the newest episode…” and shows an “Open Podcasts” button.)
    • 005APP-4-1z04-podcasts-new

SYSTEM:

  • Version of the OS:
    • Google: “What version of Android am I running” or “What is my Android version” or “What is the system version” –> Failure (gives the results of an irrelevant web search).
    • iOS: “What version of iOS am I running” –> Failure (Refusal: “Sorry, I can’t do that”).
    • 006SYS-1-2a-version-of-os-name

      This fails on iOS… but the question below succeeds.

    • iOS, attempt #2: “What version of iOS is running” –> SUCCESS (“You’re running iOS 11.0.3.” Note that it says you are running this version, but will not respond to a question in that format.)
    • 006SYS-2-2b-version-of-os-part-2-partial-success

      Note that this question succeeds on iOS where the one above failed.

  • “Change the system language to Portuguese”
    • Google: Failure (Gives an irrelevant web search result about changing the interface of a Nintendo DS portable game system).
    • iOS: Failure (Refusal: “Sorry, but I’m not able to change that setting” with no additional information).
    • 006SYS-4-2d-system-language-gives-3ds-results
  • “Change the OK Google Voice to UK English” or “Change the Siri Voice to UK English”
    • Google: Failure (Gives a relevant web search result for a change, at least.)
    • iOS: Partial success (“I can’t change my voice, but you can do it yourself in Settings” (Button to “Siri Voice Settings” appears on screen.)
    • 006SYS-5-2e-voice-change
  • “How many gigabytes of RAM does this phone have” (Android) or “How much RAM is on this iPad” (iOS) or “how much RAM is on this device” (both)
    • Google: Failure (Provides irrelevant web search results.)
    • iOS: Failure (Refusal: “I’m sorry, I can’t do that here.”)

SCREEN & CAMERA RESOLUTION:

  • “What’s the screen resolution?” / “What’s the screen resolution of this phone?”/ “What’s the screen resolution of this iPad?”
    • Google: Failure (Provides relevant-ish web search results for an assortment of different phones.)
    • iOS: Failure (Provides generic Wikipedia link to the definition of “Display resolution.”)
    • 009CAM-2-screen-resolution-2
  • “What is the resolution of the phone camera?” / “What is the resolution of the iPad camera?” / “What is the camera resolution of the front facing camera?”
    • Google: Failure (Provides irrelevant web search results.)
    • iOS: Failure (Provides irrelevant web search results.)
    • 009CAM-4-resolution-camera

SLIGHTLY MORE DIFFICULT MATH:

  • “What’s the sine of 30 degrees?”
    • Google: SUCCESS (“sine(30 degrees) = 0.5”).
    • iOS: SUCCESS (Even though it says, along with the correct answer, “The answer is approximately 0.5.”)
    • 050MATH-1-whats-sine(30 degrees) 2
  • “What’s the sine of pi?”
    • Google: SUCCESS (“sine(Pi radians) = 0.” Note that “radians” is (correctly) appended here by Google.)
    • iOS: SUCCESS (“The answer is 0.”)
  • “What’s the sine of pi radians?”
    • Google: SUCCESS (“sine(Pi radians) = 0.”)
    • iOS: Failure (Fails where “sine of pi” succeeds. “OK, I found this on the web for ‘What is the sine of pi radians’.”)
    • 050MATH-3-whats-sine-of-pi-radians-2

      “What is the sine of pi radians?” fails on iOS, but “What is the sine of pi?” succeeds.

  • “What’s the sine of 2 radians?”
    • Google: SUCCESS (“sine(2 radians) = 0.909297427.”)
    • iOS: Failure (“OK, I found this on the web for ‘What is the sine of 2 rad.’.”)
  • “What’s ‘sine 2 radians’?”
    • Google: Failure (Provides a web search. Interpreted as “what’s sign to radians.”)
    • iOS: Failure (Provides a web search. Interpreted as “what’s sign to radians.”)
    • 050MATH-whats-sine(2 radians)

NETWORK:

  • “What WiFi networks are available”
    • Google: Failure (Provides irrelevant web search results.)
    • iOS: Failure (Provides irrelevant web search results.)
  • “What’s the strength of the current WiFi network?”
    • Google: Failure (Provides somewhat relevant installation link to a program called WiFi analyzer that could probably answer this question.)
    • iOS: Failure (Provides vaguely relevant web search results.)
    • 010NET-2a-wifi-2
  • “Is my Wi-Fi encrypted?” or “Is my Wi-Fi network encrypted?”
    • Google: Failure (Informs me that Messages are encrypted, which is a different question entirely.)
    • iOS: Failure (“Wi-Fi is on.”)
  • “Does this device support 80211-ac?” (A WiFi network standard.)
    • Google: Failure (Informs me that Messages are encrypted, which is a different question entirely.)
    • iOS: Failure (“Wi-Fi is on.”)

BACKUPS AND STORAGE:

  • 100BACK-3a-last-backup-2
  • “When was this device last backed up”  or “When was the last backup” (identical results)
    • Google: Failure (gives the results of an irrelevant web search).
    • iOS: Failure (Shows a random calendar event from years ago that happened to have the word “backup” in it).
  • 100BACK-3c-space-on-device-1
  • “How much space is left on this device?”
    • Google: Failure (gives the results of an irrelevant web search).
    • iOS: Failure (Refusal: “Sorry, I can’t help you with that here).
  • “How much disk space is free?” or “How much free space is available” (identical results)
    • Google: Failure (gives the results of an irrelevant web search).
    • iOS: Failure (Refusal: “I’m sorry, I can’t do that here”).

Conclusion / Final Ratings:

  • Siri: D-minus
  • “OK Google”: D-minus
  • Alexa: not tested

If every Apple, Google, and Amazon programmer just spent one entire work day contributing a single answer to the repertoire of easy-but-unanswerable questions, perhaps voice assistants would be more reliable.

PROS: Makes voice assistants more reliable.

CONS: Brings the day even closer when humans are replaced by metal skeleton robots.

Incredible user interface tip to increase user engagement—make your software challenging and don’t let a user “auto-pilot” through an easily understood interface.

Background:

Supposedly, the proliferation of ubiquitous GPS has lead to humans being worse at navigating, the presence of calculators has rendered most people incapable of doing even basic mental math, and the existence of written language has made humans worse at remembering things more generally.

Proposal:

In order to combat this “things are too easy” trend, we recommend that software become intentionally harder to use. The open source community is already on top of this trend, as are late-2010s mobile app developers (perhaps most famously, Snapchat).

Specific issue: Color pickers

This proposal is limited to a basic enhancement of color pickers (Figure 1): by rearranging the location of colors, we can cause users to spend more time trying to find the color they are looking for, which both 1) promotes brain development and 2) increases engagement with the app. For mobile apps, increased engagement (i.e., time) also translates to more opportunities to show ads to the user.

apple-color-picker

Fig. 1: This color picker used in some built-in Apple software is totally unchallenging and unremarkable.

office-color-picker

Fig. 2: The Microsoft Office color picker is also sensibly arranged, although it has an unconventional muted color palette.

An “enhanced” color palette could look like the default one from 2014 LibreOffice (Figure 3): the seemingly random arrangement of strange and uncommon colors (with a few duplicates) means that the user will need to be fully engaged with the color picker panel in order to make sense of it.

libre-light-blue

Fig. 3: LibreOffice’s 2014 color picker doesn’t spoon-feed the user. Additionally, some colors are labeled counterintuitively to really force the user to understand what they are doing (for example, “Light blue” is  not the correct term for the blue square in the top right).

 

Fig. 4: LibreOffice has, strangely, refashioned their interface; the 2016 default (at left) is now arranged in a fashion similar to other software’s color pickers.

Conclusion:

When designing a commonly used user interface element (for example, a color picker, “save file” dialog, list of email addresses, a phone dialer, etc…), you should try to consider: how can I make this element “more engaging” to the end user? Don’t let the user’s brain coast on auto-pilot—make them work for every interaction with your interface.

PROS: Improves neural connections and promotes a hard-working self-reliant attitude.

CONS: Entitled end users will whine about your decisions!