Give me back my text labels, GMail!

The new GMail interface includes icons in action buttons instead of old text labels; not a good decision from a usability point of view.

A lot has been written about the new GMail interface; most of it is a matter of opinion, but I’m afraid Google has committed an obvious mistake: using icons (in buttons) that don’t have a clear single meaning.

Let’s take a look at two of the buttons; isn’t this your first guess when you see them?

Guess for two of the buttons in new Gmail interface: download? important? 

Wrong. The real functions of those buttons are:

Real meaning of the icons: archive and spam. 

Using fancy original self-designed icons is a common mistake made by novice interface designers; icons are hard to memorize, and users usually recognize just a few of the most common. Many times, the best way to describe a function is simply a text label.

I’m surprised Google has fallen into that error; maybe they have been paying too much attention to people complaining about their ugly interfaces. Anyway, Google, please, give me back my text labels for actions!

Research Without Walls

Members of the research community have now a way of pledging to assist only for congresses and journals that make their publications available on the web for free. Researches from institutions like Google, Microsoft and important universities have already subscribed.

‘Investigación sin paredes’, en español.

When you enter the academic world, you realize of one surprising thing: it’s a rather opaque world. In fact, many of the most prestigious journals make their publications only available to subscripters, so the only part that is available on the web for free are their abstracts.

So in the era of Internet and free access to information, scientific knowledge obtained through research (which should be the paradigm of free access to knowledge) depends mostly on an previous outlay.

At least until now. The Research Without Walls movement allows the research community to pledge to assist in the peer review process only for conferences and journals that make their accepted publications available to the public for free via the web.

Pledge form at 'Research Without Walls' 

Right now, the number of subscribers is not very large, but the list of institutions they belong to is pretty impressive: Google, Microsoft, Berkeley University, etc. And their prestige is important, since the reputation of conferences and journals is mostly determined by the researches that assist in them. The fact that they refuse to collaborate with closed-access publications may be a great boost to the free access to academic contents on the web.

‘UX interpretations’ as a UCD technique

UX Interpretations could be a useful technique to translate common poorly-specified requirements into a more UX friendly format.

User Centered Design techniques during the requirements phase (source: UsabilityNet)Some User-Centered Design techniques are supposed to be conducted during the requirements phase of the software development life-cycle, but in most real-world projects the usability/UX team cannot perform them, usually for reasons like these:

  • Requirements are defined by another team (business analysts) and the UX team is not involved in this phase; they usually don’t take part until the design phase.
  • The UX team is involved when the project is almost finished (and the interface problems are already pretty severe).

Yes, we know that the UX team should participate since the early stages of the development, but… what can we do when we are faced to given requirements, which are usually incomplete, long lists of technical features, and which have nothing to do with UCD techniques like use cases or user stories?

UX Interpretations

Last June, Greg Lauger explained in his article ‘Matching Requirements with User Experience‘ on Johnny Holland Magazine some techniques used in that kind of situations, and I think that the ‘UX Interpretation‘ approach (he calls it a “collaborative clarification”) is a great idea and could be used as a UCD technique on its own.


Psychological usability heuristics

This is a proposal for a set of usability heuristics coming from known psychological facts about the human mind, including a spreadsheet that may be used in practical heuristic evaluations.

Psychology and usabilitySome time ago, Susan Weinschenk (@thebrainlady in Twitter) wrote about the psychologist view of UX design, listing a number of facts discovered by psychology about the human mind that may be directly applied to interfaces design. And I think that’s an important point; although usability experts try to put the user in the center of every step through the design process, principles and best practices are usually referred to technical aspects of the development of interfaces. That’s what happens with most of the principles used when evaluating interfaces in heuristic evaluations.

So… why don’t we use those psychological facts as heuristic principles when evaluating interfaces, instead of the typical technical ones? To that end, I have translated Susan’s points into heuristic principles and checkpoints that may be used to evaluate interfaces, creating a spreadsheet to make evaluations easier. Here you have it:

Psychological Usability Heuristics spreadsheet (Google Docs)

Of course, the translation of facts into heuristics is subjective, and this work may be updated and/or expanded at any time; anyway, I think this may be a good approach to usability from a more human perspective.

Feel free to use this spreadsheet for your own work (you may have to download or make a copy before). Any feedback about this work will be welcome!

Update 19-sep-2011

I have contacted Susan Weinschenk explaining her this idea, and this is her kind reply:

Hi Jordi,
Thanks for writing.
It’s a very interesting idea. I’m surprised I didn’t think of it myself!
Have you read my book: 100 Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People? Probably more ideas in there too.

I haven’t read ‘100 Things‘ (yet), but I have read her previous book and multiple articles in her blog. I wonder if 100 things may lead to 100 heuristic principles. It seems like a lot of work for me alone; maybe if this first idea achieves some success…

Ship-boarding usability

Applying usability techniques during a development process that is already underway and little known may be really hard. Below I suggest a few techniques so as to “board the boat” in an effective way.

Disponible también en español

Board the ship (detail)

Jakob Nielsen defined guerrilla HCI as a collection of usability techniques that may be performed along development projects in an informal and fast way, requiring few resources, getting acceptable results and avoiding the intimidation barrier of using that kind of techniques.

One advantage of guerrilla HCI is that it can be performed without great involvement of the development team, and consequently, it is useful in traditional website development.

According to their own nature, websites must be self-explanatory and their interface must follow existing standards in order to make possible that anyone can use it without advanced skills neither previous training.

For example, guerrilla HCI could be perfectly applied in the evaluation of an e-commerce website or one belonging to a university since, in principle, they don’t require special knowledge.

Nevertheless, there are cases where it’s not that simple… (more…)

How many usability experts does it take to change a light bulb?

Just one. But she would have to:

  1. Complain about not being notified before installing the current light bulb.
  2. Find out who wants to change the light bulb, why he wants to do it, and what does he know about electricity.
  3. Search 5 regular light-bulb changers. She wouldn’t find them, so she would recruit 3 coworkers, 1 friend, and the company’s secretary.
  4. Watching the people changing the light bulbs, she would conclude that:
    • nobody notices the tiny text about what kind of bulb should be used;
    • the light-bulb changers don’t know how to screw the bulb;
    • there is no visual clue of the bulb’s temperature: two people would get burned;
    • everyone would prefer changing the bulbs just pushing a button (like Google does);
  5. She would write a 84-pages report about issues changing light bulbs and how to fix them.
  6. The original light bulb would remain unchanged.

Is there such thing as User Centered Design?

User Centered Design (UCD) is a topic becoming more popular day by day, it’s more a set of good intentions than a well-defined process applicable to any development project.

Este artículo está también disponible en español.


User Centered Design (UCD) seems to be growing in popularity, and it’s not strange. Who could be against the user being the center of the design process? But looking beyond this popularity it turns out that there is not a consensus about what UCD is.

Formal definitions like in Wikipedia or ISO 13407:1999 describe it vaguely using terms as “design philosophies”, “models”, “general guidelines”, “recommendations”, … All those are positive instructions, but they aren’t really useful when you face a real project developing a real interface.

UCD process according to ISO 13407User Centered Design is something as generic as this figure, according to ISO 13407.

What do we actually have?

Actually UCD refers almost always to a set of techniques that may be applied along all the life-cycle of a software application; the only thing those techniques have in common is that users are their main roles (at least theoretically). The number of techniques included may vary from six (like in this Webcredible article) to several tens (like in this interactive table at UsabilityNet). Those techniques may be as different between them as focus groups, user testing and interface prototyping.

Oddly some UCD techniques don’t include real users in their carrying out: for example, heuristic evaluations of usability.


‘Top lists’ as heuristics for simple usability evaluations

Heuristic usability evaluations are a discount usability engineering method for quick, cheap and easy evaluation of interfaces; but if you can’t or don’t dare to apply usual heuristics, here’s an alternative: ‘top lists’.

Heuristic evaluation is one of the most popular usability techniques; it basically consists of reviewing an interface and check if it fulfills some well-known guidelines and principles (the “heuristics”).

Once you overcome the fear of performing a task with such a fancy name, the following step is obvious: choosing the heuristics (guidelines) to use. There are some popular heuristics lists, but there are some risks when using them for a usability evaluation:

  • If the heuristics are too generic, they don’t help you to identify real issues.
  • Otherwise, if the heuristics include detailed checkpoints, you may concentrate on small or very specific issues while overlooking the important ones.

Consequently I suggest using alternative heuristics: the ‘top lists’.

Which lists?

With ‘top lists’ I am referring to lists similar to these by Jakob Nielsen:Web mistakes (by Jacob Nielsen) 

I think this kind of guidelines might be used (or the mistakes avoided) in small projects, or even in big projects as a preliminar evaluation, or in other situations.


METAeuFORiAS: Google is like a big brain

Versión en español aquí. We may consider Google as a “big eye” not only because of the images provided by Google Maps and Google Earth but also because it seems “to see” everything that is written on the web. But…

Versión en español aquí.

We may consider Google as a “big eye” not only because of the images provided by Google Maps and Google Earth but also because it seems “to see” everything that is written on the web. But in fact the way Google indexing process works is more like a huge brain.

Google logo with two brains

[…] keep on reading in METAeuFORiAS