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When A Bad Design Is Ubiquitous, Is It Still Bad?

In Joel's book, he points to Outlook as being a poor UI design due to (among other things) the not-so-obvious level of indirection required to figure out that clicking a button in the left pane makes things happen in the right pane.  He goes on to mention that the tabstirp is a much more intuitive control and so on.

I agree, and yet I can't help thinking:  now that Outlook is damn near ubiquitious on corporate desktops, is the Outlook bar paradigm STILL a bad UI choice?  Going even further, does the fact that thousands of of users have been trained to understand and use it now make it a GOOD design choice in planning a new UI?

I realize I'm playing devil's advocate here.  I'm a big fan of tabstrips myself.  But it seems funny to think that a poor UI convention has been so widely spread that it's shortcomings may have been overcome by time and exposure.

Anyone care to comment?

Tuesday, August 27, 2002

I dunno, but people have been telling me for ages that Forté Agent is much better than Outlook Express.  So, about a year ago, I downloaded Agent and played with it for a few minutes.  Couldn't make heads or tails of it.  Got frustrated and deleted it.  I'm happy with Outlook Express.  It does everything I want it to do.

Anonymous coward
Tuesday, August 27, 2002

Somehow this makes me think of a UI on a project I once worked on, which the test lead described tongue-in-cheek as "conforming to all Windows standards."  It did indeed - in the administrative part of the app, there was an Outlook bar, plus a tab control for each pane, some of which were standard dockable style and some of which weren't but had IE "big graphic with little text underneath" buttons.  And the whole thing would launch other windows, some modeless and some modal, all of which you could minimize into little blocks on the desktop (not taskbar, desktop) just like Windows 3.1!

So, to actually respond to the topic...  To me the Outlook bar originally seemed like a bad analogy relating the overall Outlook application to the semi-standard website with frames format, where all the major subsections are listed on the left-hand small vertical frame and the data appears on the right.  (JoS for example.) 

I say a "bad" analogy because I'm not sure applications within an application = topics within a website.  Also, because that formatting of websites is very common but isn't an actual *standard*, as we've noticed since with many websites going for a small horizontal frame at the top instead.  And some, of course, use both a top and left frame, but I don't believe this is used consistent to Outlook (where the left would always be the "master" navigation and the top is detail).

Have we escaped that now that more people are familiar with the idea?  Maybe, if your example is close enough to Outlook and the user base is familiar enough to "get it" when you do rough usability tests. 

I think the original administrative tool (minus its other sins) would probably be OK using an Outlook bar now.  Personally I'd *prefer* a Windows explorer style left pane (such as Win2k's Computer Management) for an admin tool, because it provides for more hierarchy in basically the same amount of space.

Tuesday, August 27, 2002

Well, the reason why corporations use Outlook, and NOT Outlook Express is because OutLook is a com object, and Outlook express is not.

Hence, the reason why OutLook Express is not much good, is exactly why Web Based Email is not good in a corporate environment.

If you ever had a client come to you ask, I need to click on a button in my application and send a email.

Outlook, and the rest of office are all programmable “com” objects that can talk to each other. I am always amazed at this basic point being missed.

The above reason is exactly why MS choose the .net route, and did not endorse thin client.

Hence, the reason why Corporations use Outlook in place of OE is the fact that Outlook is a com object.

As for the side bar, you can hide it, and I would also say that the OutLook example of using a bar on the left is not such a bad way of doing things.

Perhaps we just got so familiar with it, that we accept it. I guess now OutLook express also does have a Icon bar on the left in addition to the TreeView control on the left. This was probably added (not too long ago) to make it look and function more like Outlook. However, the icon bar in Outlook includes additional folders, and will scroll. The one in OE does not. At any rate, in OutLook you can just turn off the scrolling icon window (you also can in OE, but I don’t the icon window ever scrolls). Regardless, you can hide the icon window....

Albert D. Kallal
Edmonton, Alberta Canada

Albert D. Kallal
Tuesday, August 27, 2002

It's a sticky situation. I think it really depends on the frequency with the target audience will be exposed to the design.

For example, let's look at firetrucks. Since close to forever fire engines have been rpainted red, and people have become so familiar with this that there is a population stereotype that a long red vehicle equals firetruck. However, the disadvantage to using the color red is that it's not really that bright at night which makes the firetrucks hard to see. A few years ago, there was a movement to paint firetrucks a neon green color to make them more observable at night. Unfortunately, people had kind of a problem telling that these green trucks were fire engines. They were expecting a red truck, not a green one. Since people will not (hopefully) see as many firetrucks per day on the highway as they see normal cars, you kind of have to bite the bullet and go with using the bad design  and exploiting the population stereotype. However, if your target population were people who would be seeing firetrucks day after day after day, any population stereotype that might exist would be quickly extinguished and better vision at night would be the more desirable goal. If firefighters were the main target audience, it would be suggestable to paint the fire trucks the neon green color.

Putting it into the context of computers, if I was designing a kiosk system where the user might use the system for only two minutes during the course of his or her whole lifetime, I would shoot for exploiting familiarility, even if it was perpetuating a design that for years human factors people have been saying is bad. If I was designing an interface for an operating system environment that people will use for 9 hours every day, I would choose the better design over familiarity since the better design would have a more long-term impact on the users ability to get valuable work  efficiently and to avoid making destructive mistakes.

Generally speaking, the best computer interfaces have  a good design *and* consistently exploit familiarity with how that good basic design works to allow the user to take advantage of more advanced or complex procedures.

Ilan Volow
Tuesday, August 27, 2002

I'd say companies use Outlook because it connects to Excahnge.

I'd also disagree that the left pain acting on the right pane isn't so bad.

Tuesday, August 27, 2002

I've found that the Outlook bar is an effective, useful, and understandable navigation device -- *if* it is set up such that the currently selected button or link remains highlighted. This provides positive feedback that one of those "things" over there is "selected", and then logically this can be changed. I do not understand why MS does not do this in Outlook. They do set it to hot-track, which is good feedback indicating its purpose and operation, but of course only once the user tries to run the mouse over it.

It also seems important to me to more obviously label the outlook bar itself. With the typical flat-style look prevalent now the group separator buttons just get lost in the design. Further, I feel that an Outlook bar is much easier to understand and use if it only uses one group. For more than one group a WinXP Explorer-style pane or treeview is easier to understand, depending on the number of items.

Our primary application organizes a vast quantity of information that exists within specific sections, then is further broken down into sub-sections, which are then broken down into hierarchal order or further subsections (that's the extent of the data levels). We use navigation beginning with a single group outlook bar, the primary groups are then tabbed, and sub information will be organized through either a treeview or another outlook bar depending on it's nature. For desktop space's sake the primary section Outlook bar and the file treeview that is next to it are in an auto-hideable and dockable/undockable frame.

This layout and usage has tested very well, and is typically very well liked by the corporate-level user base.

So, I agree with your point that the a UI element that is inherently bad at inception may become a valid choice if it is widely understood and comforably used by the user base. But, I think that as in all UI cases, you can maximize its effectiveness with subtle tweaks that are more intuitive to the novice users and don't bother the experienced users.

Tuesday, August 27, 2002

I'm surprised that there's any issue of any sort with outlook, so good is its UI that I've never even thought about it.

It doesnt do something? Well then, that must be something I've never needed to do in the many years that I've been using it.

It's a round peg in a round hole.

Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Ilan Volow you've hit the nail bang on the head for me.

Usability is in the eye of the beholder.

Users define good usability NOT academics. There are many parts of our life where, from an academic perspective, poor usability is evident. However, because 'they' have become standards, and we know how to use 'them', 'they' become good usability standards.

As Jacob has discussed in one of his articles, blue is not the ideal choice for links. If we could start all over again there would be better colours to choose. But is is the standard - the majority of web users know it - therefore it is better usability to use blue for links than using the *ideal* colour.

Like I said, usability is in the eye of the beholder.

Ian Renfree
Wednesday, August 28, 2002

I never use the Outlook bar. Instead, I enabled the folder view, which allows me to have more control.

The new file open dialogs in Windows 2000 and XP have an Outlook-like bar where you can select some common locations like My Computer, My Documents, Desktop. This is a very useful feature. It would be cool if I could define the locations that are displayed. Then I would add my downloads folder to it and my project directory.

I agree, however, that in the beginning, this level of indirection was not obvious to me, even though I already was an experienced user when I first started using Outlook.

Most people I have seen using Outlook don't seem to "get it".

Patrick Ansari
Wednesday, August 28, 2002

One of my apps has a nice, clean & simple one-page interface, no nav tools needed and the users liked it. Now I'm told to make the app handle double the amount of data it was designed for, which means that the UI now needs some kind of nav tool.

I coded up several demos using various nav methods, including standard menus, tabs, treeviews and an Outlook-style bar. I showed these to the users of the app, and they ALL picked the Outlook style.

Whether Outlook is Good UI or Bad UI in the eyes of purists and academics is irrelevant; users know and understand the Outlook interface, and that makes it effective. And results are what matters.

Mark Williams
Wednesday, August 28, 2002

"Unfortunately, people had kind of a problem telling that these green trucks were fire engines."

I'm having a hard time with this. 

Are we talking about those 40,000 pound pumpers?
With the 120 decibel sirens?
And all the ladders?

I'd be interested in reading more if you have any links.

Sy Wren
Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Fire trucks might be red, which is hard to see at night, but what about the flashing lights and sirens and sfuff.

Surely they stand out.

Ged Byrne
Wednesday, August 28, 2002

You usability types give me hives.

He didn't ask why Outlook was a bad design.

He didn't ask why corporations use Outlook.

He didn't ask for opinions on Outlook versus Outlook Express.

He didn't ask about the use of colour in cultural conventions.

He certainly didn't ask for recommendations on how to use Outlook.

This is meant to be a forum, not a gathering of cyber-soapboxes.  Stop writing sermons and engage in debate, for cripes sake.

(Oops.  How did this soapbox get under me?)

Dunno Wair
Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Are there a lot of social conventions that make no sense, but are ubiquitous and people believe deeply in them?

This is the default, not an anomaly.  So you must have two standards for "bad."  Bad in, and out of the social context.

With software, you have the difference between a bad business case, and bad art.  And there's a blur between the two.  When you say something is bad, you have to reveal some of the context; otherwise pointless flamewars erupt.

Really, most people here care about usability for profit.  If usabiilty harms profit, then worse-is-better.

Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Just be glad I am not your UI designer. I would give you a stick figure that you could "diddle" in appropriate areas to get a response from the application. Faster diddling would reward you by allowing your computer to continue running.

Is there a bastard UI designer from hell like a BOFH? Because I would like to volunteer.

Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Well, epistemologically speaking, a bad UI design is still bad, regardless of it's ubiquity, because truth is immutable. IE, given we discern through logic badness and goodness of an empirical, artificial machine (a computer program), it's ubiquity is totally irrelevant.

But I don't think that's the interesting answer. The interesting answer is to be found here:

Worse is Better (no, really; Worse _is_ better! Read for yourself)

Nick Bauman
Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Many of the poor designs on this famous page will still be poor designs even if everybody is using them.

The only bad design which will be okay if everybody uses it, is the convention ones. Say, a magnifying glass always represents "find" or "search". If you use some different icons without a good reason, it may be considered bad. But if everybody uses the same icon, it will be okay.

Very simple.

Thursday, August 29, 2002

To the people who say that interfaces can be objectively bad -- let's talk about something closer to home.  I think Algol languages like C are objectively terrible interfaces into computing.  I think Sun believes this too, with people like Steele, Gosling, and Joy, who've all said something to this effect.  But they realize that mainstream programmers LIKE Algol because it's what they're used to.  Some people find Python's whitespace dizzying; the parentheses of Lisp remind them of pain.  So Sun decided that Java's Algol syntax is the way to go; it's a pragmatic design choice.

Microsoft copied Java, continuing the chain of ubiquitous bad design.

Clearly there can be no god if things like this happen, so how can there be objective truth?

Greg Neumann
Thursday, August 29, 2002

Excuse me?  I think you are mixing definitions...

Good and bad are subjective judgments, and depend upon context and preference.

Truth however can be proven independent of context and preference.

You fall from a high place you will hurt yourself... it doesn't matter what the high place is, or whether you had a choice in your action of falling.

The majority opinion on any subject is just a subjective judgment collected by statistics.  If everybody jumped off a cliff would you?  Aw, come on, don't you really wanna be a "team player"?

Joe AA
Thursday, August 29, 2002

> You fall from a high place you will hurt yourself... it doesn't
> matter what the high place is, or whether you had a
> choice in your action of falling.

I think you know I can weasel out of this.  The world of surfaces is divided into hard and soft.  And gravity's acceleration on me is also variable.  So you have a truth that says, "For some surfaces and gravities, there exists..."

Just like, "If you come from this Windows culture, this is a good UI..."

It's not a universal truth, but an existential truth.  (Where you say "for some" instead of "for all.")  There soooo many existential truths.  I don't know any universal truths; I'd be glad if you could tell me.  (Does "I think, therefore I am" count?)

I guess I just don't believe in objective truth.  Maybe you do, so all the more power to you.

Greg Neumann
Friday, August 30, 2002

My point was, rather poorly stated I grant you, is that truth is not a matter of personal preference. 

Adjectives like good and bad are personal preference.  If you are seeking truth in personal preference, then more power to you.

I assume you are sitting at a desk.  Does that desk really exist objectively?  If there is no objective truth, then make a fist and smash it into the desk.  Since there is no objective truth, that means you don't exist either, and two illusions cannot hurt themselves.

Go ahead... try it... "trust me"... whasamatter?  ain't got enough "faith" in your belief?

Joe AA
Saturday, August 31, 2002

But what if there is a third illusion of pain as soon as your fist hits the desk? :-)

Frederik Slijkerman
Saturday, August 31, 2002

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