Poor Design Seems The Social Media Standard

Last night I noticed a Facebook invite from a friend in the UK to join Goodreads – a social site where you can share your favorite books, ratings and reviews with fellow readers.  Given the credibility of my friend, and my love of books and reading (I own a 3000 volume library) I joined.

I was immediately sucked into a morass of barely intelligible prompts, screens and web page navigation that make a map of the streets of London look like the model of a planned community.

I think I wound up rating one book before falling over from exhaustion – thus giving my friend and the world the impression that I am a) illiterate or b) accidently hit a wrong key and actually rated a book by mistake.

And my friend Drayton, who actually took the time to write a review (which I would like to read) found that it was swallowed up in the aforementioned morass of the site and gone to IT (information technology) heaven.

Rest in peace, book review.

And the fault lies squarely on the shoulders of the developers, who took a great concept and executed it rather poorly.

So I was yet again reminded of my total frustration with much of today’s web site design and lack of basic computer software development practices.

Back in the day of “please don’t fold, spindle and mutilate” when I was a Senior Programmer on the big mainframe computers, we had a derisive name for this kind of design and programming.  We called it spaghetti code.  Yes, there was bad code back then too, but today it seems to be the industry standard.

Actually, I fear I give it too much credit when I say standard.  Because that would imply some forethought, wouldn’t it?

Which all of these websites seem to be sadly lacking.

Now I hope you are sitting down for this because I’m going to say something quite radical.  Here it is.  We used to actually plan our computer code in advance, being mindful to make it as easy as possible for the “user” to, hmmm, well, actually use it.

There’s that ugly “forethought” concept again, isn’t it?

Which seemed sadly lacking in a documentary on Facebook I watched recently, where all of the programmers were sitting around in a circle (I’ll keep it clean here) with the head honcho Zark Muckerman (not his real name) throwing up, I mean slamming out, code changes at each whim or idea from the group.

Which is just how the user experience on Facebook and other social networking sites feels, doesn’t it?  That you are swimming though an area where a bunch of folks have lost their lunch.  And I’ll bet not one user feels I’m being too graphic with this.

Worse yet, changes to basic functions are changed all of the time, on a whim, so that what was in one place on the screen yesterday has now moved or morphed or disappeared today.

Much like if little gremlins invaded you car every night and switched all the basic controls around, like moving the ignition from the steering column to under your seat, the windshield wiper control to inside the trunk, and the steering wheel to the other side of the car.

And the next night they changed all the basic controls all around again.

So in the morning when you get into your car, rushing to get to your first meeting of the day, you feel total frustration trying to do the most basic thing – like starting your car (I have a revenge fantasy of doing this to all of these mindless nerds – which may imply I need to get a life – chuckle).

Now this would just be an old timer’s rant except for one thing.  I know of something that can help.

It’s a book, a wonderful, clear, cogent book, that describes how to avoid this situation.  I’ll let the title speak for itself.  It’s called Don’t Make Me Think!: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability by Steve Krug – who seems to think things through before he writes them.

It is full of design gems and reviews of sites and their usability.  And the author presents another one of those jaw-dropping ideas.  It is to test your web site.

No, I don’t mean just check to see if the spaghetti code works.  Test it with real humans.  Like people off the street.  And video tape the tests.  An analyze them to see where they get confused.  Then go back and make the developers redesign the damn thing.

And keep doing this until you get it right.  Because people don’t necessarily follow the same mental logic path that a computer nerd might think they will.  Go figure.

So why not ask them?  Why not ask the user of the code by letting them exercise its usability and giving feedback.

Because, young nerds, you only have to write the computer code once, but us hapless users have to use it over and over again, thousands and millions of times.  So your lack of design forethought is compounded exponentially.  And not liked very much, I should add.

So check out the book Don’t Make Me Think.  My copy is dog eared and underlined.  And don’t worry, it is written so even the technically challenged will understand it.

Also buy a copy for a code developer if you know one.  You may just be helping save the world.

Have a nice day – John

P.S. You notice I posted this book review on my web site instead of Goodreads – the site that is supposed to be designed for this sort of thing.  Goodreads is a great concept – but poorly executed.  So I don’t want my review to go to IT heaven where my friend’s review went.

Then I posted a link to this review on Facebook, to get it out of the social media Facebook morass as quickly as possible so my friends can actually see it and read it.

Look out, Zark Muckerman and your ilk.  Sometimes us folks with grey hair, or no hair at all, know a bit more than you have considered.  So you might consider that, and the “forethought in design” thing as well.

And get a copy of the book while you’re at it.

And read it.  Over and over.  Until you get it.

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