Foursquare: Turn On Turn Off

There are times when I get fed up with my always-on online presence. Facebooks of the world have made it difficult for their users to log off by hiding that menu option under something called ‘Account’ or ‘Settings’. I hear them sing, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!”

Yet one of the joys of having a mobile device is to be able to turn off location services every now and then. Go underground, become invisible to the prying eyes of my foursquare friends. Go missing!

But when my pangs of solitude get subsided, I invariably come back to civilisation by the means of Foursquare. All eager to know who is eating what, at which restaurant. Who is shopping where, with whom, etc.

As a user I want the app to submit to my wishes, not take orders from it. But see what treatment I got:

Situation – I launch Foursquare app.
Condition – my locations services are turned off.
I see this:

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Well, I don’t wish to click that close button. I do wish Foursquare to ‘turn the location services on’ as the question suggests.
So I tap on the pink band. And what do I see?

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Ah! A lesson in how to use my phone! Perhaps handy for the first time iPhone users, but I’ve been playing with this toy for over a year, thank you very much!

With a little irritation I press ‘Got it’. Because I really did. And I discover that I just closed a pop-up box, but no action is taken:

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So I am missing out on amazing recommendations and tips sent directly to me! Boy, wasn’t that the reason I took this course of action? So I tap ‘Turn on your Location services’ only to see that pop-up I just closed. No action!

Before I compose a post criticising Foursquare, it was only fair that I check what other apps do. Google Maps simply told me that my Location services were disabled. No Action. No tutorials either (thankfully)!

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Among all the apps only Instagram did what I expected it to do. It realised my Location services were disabled, and simply showed me a dialogue box, where all I had to do was to tap on ‘Settings’, and I was taken to the Location services settings screen!

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In two taps, I was back in business! Back to life!

All above mentioned ape are successful in their own right. But the one that thinks carefully about user experience gets my vote of approval. The key is to care about user expectations, draw as many scenarios as possible before settling on the final interaction design of the application.

In this regard, Instagram wins hands down. Foursquare, are you taking notes?

Linkedin: Never never repeat repeat yourself yourself

Yes, I live in a place that has spotty network. This somehow makes me an ideal user testing candidate, because if you can help me, you can help all your users.

Here is what happens to most of my social postings: I make a post. I hit the submit / post button. And wait. Nothing much happens… My post is yet not there in the public eye. Or so I gather from the page that has long stopped refreshing itself. I have tweeted a tweet twice, I have pinned a pin twice. I have even posted the same thing on Facebook twice. Once I realise my mistake I scramble to look less like an idiot and delete the repeated post! Maybe I am too paranoid about my posting as if millions are watching my every move. Well, this false sense of fame is a direct byproduct of social media!

But one such network is worried about their users reputation (understandably, since it’s their business) and that is LinkedIn!

I just posted something on Linkedin, and I wasn’t sure if I had really done that (again I have my network to thank). So I composed the entire post again (along with the appropriate link that I had to share. But something interesting happened! Take a look:

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Don’t you love when such error messages start with “We are unable to…” as opposed to “You goofed up there, buddy!”

All it took for them to realise that I was repeating myself was the content of my post that matched exactly with a post that was made last! How hard is it technically? But to think about introducing this kind of error message is not commonplace. It goes to show that nothing is more important to Linked than stopping me from looking like an idiot and I thank them for that!

PS: As one of my observant friends pointed out, even twitter sports a similar functionality, but uses a more folksy language (Opps! You already tweeted that). Whereas G+ and Facebook couldn’t care less.

Whatsapp: iOS 7, yet none the wiser!

Whatsapp-change

I have seen everybody who uses whatsapp hate it for one or the other reason, Yet, nobody I know can stop using it. There are groups made, conversations stored, jokes forwarded. In short, social life as we know it. Some people I know, when they lost their mobile phone, were more worried about their whatsapp conversation that went away with it!

And yet, there are problems. The first one is about how to react to a message. In a group conversation, messages flow like water under the bridge. More appropriate comparison would be Facebook posts. So if one fine morning you saw 30 unread messages and you find one joke (15th message, say) quite funny, there is no way to ‘like’ that message, or send a smiley as a reply to it specifically. Some people may find it rude that their jokes are not laughed on! So if your smiley is 31st message in response to the 15th, it may create a funny string of conversation, as you never meant your smiley as a response to the 30th message! (good luck with convincing the sender on that).

Now I know Whatsapp has a structure of ‘messages’ and not ‘posts’. But I did expect (unrealistically, perhaps) that they would make this change at least for group conversations with their iOS7 version, but no sausage!

The second and more irritating thing about Whatsapp is that you HAVE TO scroll through all the messages (especially long winded jokes) to reach the bottom and see the latest one. Like in FB, there should have been a limit on how many lines you display before someone deciders to ‘continue reading’. On a mobile device, one scroll is enough to decide if you wish to read anything or just move along and see other messages. There is a real danger that important messages may get lost in this landslide!

This unending scrolling once irritated me so much that I actually left a 40-jokes-an-hour kind of group saying that I am afraid the real important messages would be lost and members rather email me or send me a text if they wanted my attention. What’s wrong with a simple truncating of messages and letting the user decide if it is worth reading? I sincerely hoped that they would make this change in their iOS7 version*. Again, no sausage!

Therefore, I remain, a reluctant user of Whatsapp even in this new year. Well, you can’t blame one to embrace the only popular way in existence that defeats the ‘charging-per-message evil service provider regime’ on daily basis, can you?

* I asked a developer about this and I was told that on Android, you can do this truncating programmatically, but it’s impossible on iOS as of now.

Bing Facebook Plugin – Translating delight

Contrary to what the readers would believe, I do not always criticise bad user experience. At times one must applaud the efforts of those who believe in providing a great experience to the users when they least expect it.

One of the things that Facebook has made possible are friendships that go beyond the boundaries of nations and languages. Somebody in the offices of Facebook or Bing (Who blinked first? Dunno.) decided to be helpful and provide a small link that shows translation of a comment! I dedicate this short blogpost to whoever was responsible! Take a bow!

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PS: It appears that the translate-link is presented only when a comment is posted by someone in a different location, because when I tried being cheeky and wrote something in latin, but no link appeared… Or maybe it did not appear for ME… :-)

McDonald’s Happy Meal Toy – a lesson in First User Experience

As countless parents before me, I order a Happy Meal every time I go to McDonald’s regardless of the mood I am in. Some of the toys do bring out the kid in me and I rip open the packaging and play with the toy before presenting it to my daughter.

Every time I look at the plastic pack decorated with a few wordless illustrations and warning messages in a dozen languages, I hear it say “the toy may be for you, but this is really for us. For the warning messages are torn and thrown away, but not before letting the manufacturer off the hook if something goes wrong.

Yet every time my daughter starts to play with the toy, I get a question or two about how it works and we both sit staring at the enthusiastically torn plastic pack and try to unravel the mystery of the instructional illustrations.

Mc-Toy

Truth be told, Most of the toys are self explanatory. And the payoff is so attractive that there is little chance of someone grumbling about the illustrations being less than informative. In fact, most of the times the instructions are looked at after the toy has been tinkered with.

Yet not everything that is sold (product as well as service) is as attractive and welcoming as the seemingly free McDee toy. Most of the online instructions about how to use a certain service, payment system or  banking application think that their first user experience, their welcome screens, their help are going to be overlooked anyways because their customers are dying to get their hands on their offering. This belief prevents any attention or care going into crafting such screens and messages.

Unlike the McDee toy, many offerings have a price tag, a need for the customer’s commitment, a decision in their favour among the competing offerings. Perhaps that is the reason why Fisher Price puts a well designed instruction card inside every toy box.

I sincerely hope that fierce competition eventually will force businesses to pay more attention to their first user experiences. All they have to do is start thinking about themselves as Fisher price and not McDonald’s, who incidentally, are not in the toy business anyway.

iOS7: The case of the missing ‘Decline’ button

One of the primary functions of a mobile phone is to ‘manage’ an incoming call. It was iOS 6 that gave us the ability to decline an unwanted incoming call not just with a curt ‘No’, but with a polite message. My favourite is “Can’t talk right now, I’m driving.” Because that’s when I need to decline the call yet be all reasonable about it. But sometimes the call is from a landline, or from an unknown number or from an unwanted caller, and I prefer to just cut the call.

So far I had both the options at my disposal. But iOS7 has changed it all.

If the phone is not in use, and a call comes in, you can do the following:
1] Respond with a message – that’s still there.
2] Remind yourself to call back – that’s handy!
3] Or just take the call by swiping your finger on the green button.
But there is no 4] – Decline the call!

When you are using the phone, however, the Decline button appears!
Here are two screenshots for comparison

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And haven’t we been here before?
Remember how the tweak was originally introduced in iOS5?

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The handy “Decline with a message” utility was added later in iOS 6:

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It seems Apple is going back to their original iOS4 mechanism. And I can think of just one reason why they are doing so.

Sliding is a better mechanism to make a choice than tap when the phone is not in use. You don’t want to accidentally decline an important call, do you? Perhaps the phone is in your pocket and you’d rather take it out and look at who’s calling before you decide to take an action: Press the Power button Twice (not that elegant).

Here’s my suggestion – How about giving the user a slider than provides a choice?

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Not that this is such an original idea. This has been attempted in a few Android interfaces as well as Windows. But Apple has stayed away from it for some reason.

While the fanboys are busy glossing over the sex appeal of the new interface (or drool over the parallax effect) and the critics are busy maligning the colour schemes and icons, showstoppers such as this can seriously damage the intended rich user experience.

Let us hope that Apple introduces it in the later versions of iOS 7.

The evolving nature of typographic control

In the beginning there was the printed letter. (never mind the handwritten, hand-scribbled, hand made and other such off-hand instances of total control since the age of cave paintings) It gave the person in charge of composing printed matter a fair degree of control over how the output looked, for more often than not, the same person was in charge of designing the wooden typefaces to be put in the wine-press contraptions of Gutenberg-era.

As the printing industry grew, the typographer and the printer got separated, each blaming the distant other about why the printed stuff did not look like what was intended. Type designers said their intentions were lost in translation and printers were too busy keeping the presses profitably running to worry about employing a full time typographic overlord.

But then came the age of Letterpress, Linotype and other machines cleverly closing the gaps in mechanical spacing. Typographers cried with joy and declared that they had regained their freedom. This continued and was enhanced by the entry of the blessed machine called the Computer. Now there was complete control over typography as it was no longer bound by the laws of physical space. The letterforms could align themselves to whatever shape the designer chose, or dance on any path that the Mouse had drawn onscreen.

What everyone forgot in the midst of much champagne uncorking was the fact that it was the ‘medium’ which had placed the typographers in the driving seat and not the tools of creation. And the medium was called the printed page. Physical. Unmoving.

Even the ones with a little philosophical bent of mind dismissed the thought by saying “If not paper, what else is supposed to convey the typographic intent? huh! Guess I need a refill”.

“But the medium is the message”, cried a Canadian professor. Television was giving a new dimension to how typography was conveyed. There was a limit on space but no limit on the dimension called ‘time’. The letterforms could be animated, twisted, turned in time. Control? Yes, typographers got it. with a few exceptions such as pixels, screen noise and remote control.

In the television era there was one typographer at the source, one message, one design, but millions upon millions of television sets across the world. With different physical size, brightness, contrast and colour settings. Yet in a strange way, there was some typographic control. The pixel dimensions remained very much the same. At least in the same geographical territory. There was a small learning curve when it came to PAL, SECAM, NTSC and frame rate and underscan dynamics but it did not pose as tough a challenge as the one internet presented.

The beginning of the great Internet era! This was when the typographer almost gave up. The web delivered the intended design to the whole connected world. And the world received it – in different physical screen sizes, pixel depths, colour settings, operating systems and horror of horrors – in system fonts. Only! Not to mention the restrictions on alignment.

“What!”, cried the scores of print designers, “This internet thingy is a passing fad. Let us stick to print. Let us talk about the complete control that we always had over the printed page. Let us speak of the days when we fought to kill every single ‘widow word’. Let us bury our heads in newsprint. Hey, this way the world looks much better!”

But the world was changing its ways. Bits were faster and cheaper to move than atoms. Clicks replaced Bricks. Designers and typographers (at least some of them) had to pull out their heads from the sand and take up the new challenges of designing web presence for the commercial world.

Until the invention of web fonts designers pretty much had two choices – either design with universally available fonts or make images of their typography. In a low bandwidth world that was, headlines set as jpeg or gif images sparked small wars between the designers and developers (and created a rift that will put to shame the warring factions within advertising agency disciplines such as servicing vs creatives and art vs copy!).

The bandwidth problem was solved. so was the problem of system fonts. Now typographers thought they finally had control over how the letterforms looked – on any screen. Enter ‘Responsive’ design! Now the design could rearrange itself to suit the conditions on the user’s computer! (even if it was a phone and not a computer – which is pretty much the same thing now). Type changed size and placement on different devices but conveyed the typographer’s intentions perfectly.

Processor power continued to increase according to Moor’s law. Pixel and colour depths soared. Retina displays took away the jagged edges of serif typefaces. The designer could be in total control again! And yet, somehow, things are set to change again.

User preferences on devices and browsers can alter the typography on a web page or inside an application window. The user can change the alignment, font size – and some typographers may find this unsettling – decide if the font should be serif or sans serif! (Okay, before you launch an argument about the virtues of sans serif fonts on screens, let me assure you, that at the time of writing this post there is no conclusive research that proves either provides a better reading experience onscreen). See the few screens shared below of the Pocket app (formerly Read it Later) where the user gets total control over the typography onscreen.

Technology will continue to provide ever greater control to the user, not the designer. Perhaps the way forward for typographers (or any designer) is to design for possibilities. and not for one single instance of presentation. If we as designers are sensitive to the user and curb our desire to dictate every single thing, we can create meaningful user experiences.

Pocket-UI

HDFC Bank* ATM UI – Layered Narrative

* Any bank for that matter

The ‘closest ATM’ is always ‘my ATM’ regardless of which bank has issued the card to me. Like millions, even I subscribe to convenience more than brand loyalty when it comes to cash withdrawal. In fact I don’t even know/care if there is a surcharge that other banks charge me on every withdrawal (I guess this rule used to be there and has been cancelled since).

a few days ago I was withdrawing some cash from an HDFC Bank ATM (with my ICICI card). Here is what I saw -

HDFC-bank-ATM-Hindi

The notice about foreign cards attracting an additional fee was right in my face. Clearly the system was intelligent enough to understand that card was not from HDFC Bank. But it wasn’t intelligent enough to understand that the card was from an INDIAN bank!

But what struck me as funny was that on a Marathi interface, the notice was in english. (if the user has selected a particular language, the notice should be in THAT language). So the system was assuming that I was a foreign national who would understand only English, but somehow has selected Marathi as the preferred language! Er…?

I understand that the real life is far from ideal. Maybe it was an RBI directive that was issued only in one language… But hold on! The Marathi screen below was the exact translation! Curiosity got better of me and I inserted my card again, this time selecting English as my preferred language. This is what I saw -

HDFC-bank-ATM-English

Well, what do you know! The superimposed notice was not a translation job after all! Here the notice which was nicely set in English behind was repeated in BOLD ALL CAPITAL LETTERS obscuring the menu alongside as well. I can almost picture an RBI (or some such authority) issuing not just the notice, but also the screen for delivering it!

This made for a less than ideal user experience, but more importantly showed lack of regard for the user whatsoever. It is regrettable that banks (HDFC is not alone in this) are letting mandatory messages mess up their interfaces. What they need are brand / experience managers who are sensitive to these minor (but damaging nonetheless) issues and who can iron them out before they become the norm.

Simple Template for Blogger: gestures cut a long story sh

While reading a blog on a phone you are expected to scroll to read it completely (as there is no limit on the length). So why would you provide a left / right swipe to jump to previous/ next posts? But Simple Template for Blogger just did that!
I was reading a particularly long post (10 downward swipes long,say) and I wanted to check how much was left to be read. So I used my thumb to quickly swipe multiple times. I am sure I must have slipped and changed direction of my thumb movement on the 5th one, and I was suddenly reading the next post! I quickly swiped back, and gave one more swipe for good measure when it took time for the page to load. Sure enough I was thrown 2 prior posts. By the time I came to the post, I had lost the place I was reading at…
I was reminded of reading wired magazine on the iPad. You scroll vertically to read one article, you swipe left right to move between stories. But that’s an iPad. You have to make bigger gestures than a flick of a thumb to commit to a navigational response (ok, maybe you can do the same with thumb, but you would be more mindful while doing it).
Sometimes you need to curb your desire to use multiple gestures if the resulting user experience is one of frustration.

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WordPress: An unlikely error

I am writing this post on a WordPress blog. I have always admired the simplicity and intuitiveness in their interface. And I am sure this is just a small slip that went unnoticed, so I will keep my criticism to minimum.

Look at the following alert.

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It informs the user that any changes not saved as draft would be lost if the user cancels the post. So what would you click? Cancel? because you are supposed to confirm an action that ‘cancels’ or ‘Ok’ because you agree and understand what this alert is trying to communicate?

I must confess I clicked on ‘Cancel’ once before realising that I should have done otherwise :-)

One cannot stress the importance of devising the right labels enough. If the word ‘Cancel’ appears at the end of the message, perhaps it would have been better to provide ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ Buttons. But if WordPress has to maintain consistency among all alert message action labels, it would’ve been better to just remove the last line of the message.