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A 20 minute usability review of City Desk

Product: City desk starter edition.
Operating system: Windows XP Professional. Dell Pentium 256 MB RAM

An excellent product. I thought i would do a task analysis and probably a statistical study taking this as a example. But i came across very wierd things which are very basic usability flaws IMHO. The intital points are silly. But i would shout the roof down at any programmer who made some of the mistakes cited later on. But then again, i am a novice to city desk. Maybe there was some reason for doing it this way. Again, on the whole the usability is good. I did my masters in usability engineering. But this product had many basic flaws. The Microsoft usability standard at

is not implemented properly. You would say, "FUCK MICROSOFT". But the problem is, people expect software to work the way MS works. Again this is just an initial impression. Its not a detailed study. And i am no city desk expert. So you could say, this is not "well informed" study.

On pressing the windows shortcut key, the right mouse menu pops up in the most inconvenient position ---> Top left hand side. It should be where the caret should be. Logical and simple. If you are visually impaired, you will have a hard time locating where the menu popped up.
I am not sure why almost every product has this bug . Or this is a feature?

The "Find Next"  has no shortcut key. You are compelled to use the mouse. Hardly intuitive.On a closer inspection, it has a shortcut key, but is not visible. Why do you expect me to type out all the letters on my keyboard to find the shortcut key?. The textboxes have visible shortcut keys but pushbuttons dont.  Also Checkboxes dont have shortcut keys. Or is this a windows XP feature.

"Font Sizes". It shows font sizes from 1 to 7. Next to 1 it says "Smallest". Yeh. I remember Arithmetic well enough to know that if there are numbers from 1-7, 1 is the smallest. The main thing is, if i want to set the font to 8, the letters distract. It forces me to read the words "smallest" or "largest".

"Aricles, Properties, Extras" . No way to navigate between tabs using the keyboard.  The font is also quite unpleasant. You wont see tabs with that font.

On the bottom(Status text) it says "478 words". Helpful. But if you are like most people, you will find that a combination of number of lines and number of words make more sense.  For example "30 lines, 300 words". In fact, people find it difficult to think in lines too. The best is Number of Pages with number of lines (like MS Word)

It is an editor, but on pressing the Insert key does not show whether its an insert or in overtype mode. Very basic IMHO. This is usually found in products like microsoft word and yes, i do use this feature.

When i type "F1", nothing happens. Does not bring up the help system.  I dont know whether its a problem with my edition. Other products installed seemed to work on the F1 key.

"Save and Close"--> Again not intuitive.

How many of you actually click the "Maximize" button on launching citydesk?. Why does it not come up like you expect it to come up?

Splash screens are not meant for the purpose Joel is using them for. To repeat , Splash screen is meant to show the user something to look at when the application loads, though the main purpose is often lost. In Citydesk, the splash screen is shown after the application loads.

Why have a application window for each window?. This can have unpleasant consequences. I go to city desk main, go to MS Word and to city desk article. On closing the city desk article, you expect to get back to city desk. But it takes you to MS Word. Atleast, simulate a MDI window, even if you dont use it.

Some dialogs have "Help" , others have "Learn More". Difference?. Small thing, you can ignore this one.

The "Ok" and "Cancel" buttons should be in the bottom right hand side of dialogs. There is a specific reason for this. It should not distract you from the dialog contents.

Similiar find boxes ought to be consistent. In the "Edit Variable" window, you bring up one find -replace box. In the main city desk article, another find-replace box. Cant you call the same box?.

In the "Edit variable" Box, the "Edit" menu is disabled when the screen loads. This should not be done. Why?. A visually impaired user may not notice that the "Edit" menu is disabled. He may not see the edit menu at all. A better solution is to disable the sub menus. This way, the user will know that it may be enabled on navigating to the next control (Multiline).Again, pushbuttons have no shortcuts, but text boxes have.

In the "Edit Variable" Box, why show scrollbars if there is only one line?. This is distracting.
The horizontal scroll bar **always** distracts. It should be shown only when the text length exceeds screen space.     

The "Edit Variable" Box comes in the "Top Left Hand Corner". Nope. It should come in the center.
Forces the user to shift focus. I have heard of the windows standard on placement of dialog boxes. Should be mostly centered. But there is little reason to put it on the top left hand side.

The "HTML" View has a caret size thicker than the "Normal View". Smart programming?. This is quite noticeable.    Also why change the font?

In the main City Desk Explorer view, Windows short cut key does not work. Very basic IMHO. This is the first thing i look when i evaluate usability.

Again, the "Find-Replace" Boxes have a little problem. The text box width is not consistent across different "Find-Replace" dialogs, although there is no evidence that the length of the text the user enters changes from one dialog to the other.

The "Find-Replace" box in the HTML editor does not select the selected text by default.  By this i mean that if "Joel" is highlighted in the article, i expect "Joel" to show up in the Find-Replace boxes. Basic, IMHO.

The captions with the pictures in Find-Replace boxes have to have the first letter capitalized. Looks better. And is windows standard.

In the "Insert-Link" dialog (External URL Text box)(, if the URL is too long, you are better of seeing the first "N" characters rather than the last "N" characters. I mean, you save it as
What do you want to see the next time, is it or "adadadasdsadad"
Long URL's can easily be viewed in this article. Provide the URL as a tooltip. This is what Microsoft recommends and what is commonly followed.

In the "Insert Link" box, on navigating using the tab key, the radio button value changes from "To a citydesk..." to "To an external URL". And no Joel, I know you think that this is smart. BEcause the user did not select anything, smartly change the value. The basic windows rule is that you should not change values in any fields when the user navigates. Read the MSDN article on usability.

Tab order does not work in the "Insert Link". It never seems to go to the "Link appears in..." checkbox.

In the insert picture box, on clicking "Import File", you get a unpleasant minor usability shock. The dialog is no longer visible when the "Insert Picture" comes up. Why?. Imagine if Microsoft Word window disappeared when the "Save As" dialog comes. I mean, there is no earthly reason why it ought to go off your vision radar for some time.

In the Insert picture dialog box, The space between the "Alignment" frame and the picture is much larger than in the "Link" frame.  I mean, see the space between "Link" and "The image is not a link". There is one more problem. All the objects need to be centered within the frame. In the "Link" frame, the space between the frame and the first object is much larger than the space between the frame and the last object. This is glaringly obvious.

The tab order is totally haywire in the "Insert Dialog Box". Set the focus to the combo box.I expect it to go to the "Import File" and then to the "Alignment" frame. But it never goes to the alignment frame.  And no Joel, although i am your fan, this is inexcusable. The problem with this design is that you can never navigate to the alignment frame by the keyboard by tabbing. Also,
you cant navigate to some other fields.

I noticed a very strange anomoly in the "Insert Picture" box. None of the radio buttons have
VISIBLE shortcut keys, but the shortcut keys work. Put an "Ampersand" before the titles to indicate that there is a shortcut key.Even when i press the alt key, the shortcut keys are not visible. And no joel, there cannot be any earthly reason for this.

Provide some kind of a shortcut key to navigate between windows in city desk. Usually, this is Ctrl+F6.

When i click on "Insert Audio", the file types show "All Files". It should show "Audio Files".

A tooltip for "Add" pushbutton shows "Add". A tooltip for "Delete" shows "Delete". Whats the point mate?. Dont provide them at all or provide some meaningful tip. "

In Template Properties, i cannot navigate to the non-disabled checkboxes at all. On a closer inspection, i can navigate but i cant see that it has navigated !!!

Windows in city desk open in all sorts of positions. One needs to look around the screen to see the place where it has opened.

Keyboard navigation is haywire and wrong in citydesk. I respectfully recommend.

And yes Joel, i know users who do all stuff on their keyboard who get irritated by such things.
I mean to be helpful, and i hope you fix these. 

A Regular poster from India
Friday, March 5, 2004

The best test of Citydesk's usability is that I could set up a site  for my company, and marketing could add pages themselves after about 5 minutes training. AND not keep coming back to ask questions about how such and such worked.

I can't think of any other low end CMS systems where that would be possible.

Matthew Lock
Friday, March 5, 2004

I hope no one mistakes this post. I am not saying City desk is bad . 99.99% good and 0.01% defective is still a great product.Please dont mistake this post. Its just what i looked for.


A Regular poster from India
Friday, March 5, 2004

The reason for this post is to get into a harsh usability war. I want someone saying "This is the reason for this" rather than saying "City desk is great". That way we all learn. Sorry for the third post.

A Regular poster from India
Friday, March 5, 2004

It's all relative.
From my usability experience, City Desk does not appear to be aimed at casual or inexperienced users. Rather it appears geared toward speeding & simplifying the tasks of building & maintaining web content for those already familiar with the equivalent manual methods. From this perspective, City Desk is a relatively friendly tool.

Likes long walks, short piers
Friday, March 5, 2004

I think this illustrates a good point:

The success of a business depends on doing many things well, not doing one thing perfectly. (I.e., need to have effective markeing AND sales AND prices AND product )

Everything is a tradeoff.

Likewise, producing a successful product depends on doing many things WELL, not doing one thing perfectly.  If you do manage to get one thing perfect, the "cost" of that perfection comes in reducing the success of the other features.

Think of the company or product as a chain. It's only as strong as it's weakest link.

People often focus on thier own area of expertise (programming, the look of the program, sales, whatever) and think that that PORTION of the company IS the company. IF only they could get that part RIGHT, then it woudl be a success.

Joel has gotten every piece of the company working fairly well. He has gotten most of the program working fairly well.  Certainly room for improvement, if any piece was perfect them it would mean he spent too much time of that piece. He'd have one VERY STRONG link and, consequently, other weaker links.

Personally, my biggest gripe is that it's so hard to convert an EXISTING website to Citydesk.  you basically have to cut and paste the whole site a page and image at a time.  If my site were small enough to do that, I would not need CityDesk.

The real Entrepreneur
Friday, March 5, 2004

Regular Poster

and you carried out this study for what purpose? Practice?

As a CD _user_ there a number of things that I, and from posts I've read in the CD NG - many other _users_ would like to see FC spend their time on. You pick up on exactly … ahh ... none of them. Although you came close a couple of times :)

You did mention a few glaring items (not that any of them have either affected my ability to use CD or ever even been noticed for that matter) the most obvious being F1-Help. VB and HTML-Help, which is what the program uses, have never gotten on well – not a good excuse, I agree.

On the "Maximize" item - God I hate people who have to "Maximize" every GD tool, utility or program they open. Especially on a multi-user machine. 95% back-ground. It's the only time I curse Form persistence. Yea, I know - off track - just a rant.

I'm not about to argue "usability" with the learned. Here's my 18 month review (just what you didn't want) It works great, I'm very productive with it and although there are a number of new features and fixes I'd like to see just about every item you mentioned, to me, is pure fluff. It doesn’t meet every anal item according to some MS document … BFD, I could give a fiddlers fart!

Sorry, I got off track, what was it were studying here?

Perpetual Newbie II
Saturday, March 6, 2004

I think these are meaningful points that can help turn make a great product even greater; afterall software is about continual improvement over time.

Seun Osewa
Saturday, March 6, 2004

Regular poster, you've not written a usability review, you've just nit-picked small flaws in the GUI. If you want to review the usability of CityDesk, then use it to create and maintain a website and write about how good it was at doing that. I don't care if there's no 'Find Next' shortcut key, I care that it's top notch at maintaining a website...

John C
Saturday, March 6, 2004

Why do Joel's cronies defend him so much?

This bloke... he's pointed out inconsistencies in the UI, coming from a company whose chief has written a *book* on UI design.

To this post, you should either say, "no, you're wrong. These are NOT UI problems" or say, "yes, you're right. We'll fix them" or at least "we know about it, but we did it this way because..."

Karl Max
Saturday, March 6, 2004

I don't use City Desk but I'd like to answer a couple of points.

--""Save and Close"--> Again not intuitive." -----

There was a long debate over this a few months back. You might do a search and find the thread. It's one of the design decisions that will inevitably piss-off a fair proportion of people.

The placing of the right context menu at the top left of the screen is the Windows default placement for some things, such as the display.

I't not clear on any numerical scale whether 1 represents the smallest or the largest. You have to point it out.

Stephen Jones
Saturday, March 6, 2004

I think what I object to most about the OP's post is his tone. This is not a review. Nothing about his tone indicates objectivity. To me, his tone sounds like he's desperate to highlight his own knowledge of the subject (usability) rather than truly explore the design decisions (if indeed they were) behind certain aspects of City Desk.

While I haven't ever used City Desk (it doesn't run on the Mac), I can base the following on my background building software: every software product has bugs and visual bugs are often easier to find.

Had I adopted this tone back when I made a living doing usability consulting, I wouldn't have had many repeat customers.

Oh, one more thing: I think the use of IMHO (In My Humble Opinion) is ludicrous. If you call attention to it, it most certainly ISN'T a humble opinion.

Jeff Watkins
Saturday, March 6, 2004

Umm, with regards the 'hidden' shortcut key for 'Find Next', isn't that just a case of Control Panel | Display | Appearance | Effects | "Hide underlined letters for keyboard navigation until I press the Alt key" being turned on by default in Windows 200 0 and XP ?

Saturday, March 6, 2004

I disagree. I've not used Citydesk, and I don't really care about whether it's good or bad, but my complaint is with people who dismiss these so-called trivialities out of hand, or claim they don't matter when the program as a whole works well.

As a blindingly obvious point, if the program as a whole didn't work well, the poster would probably have been moaning about something bigger. You don't complain about tab order, disappearing dialogs and strange menu positioning if you have bigger fish to fry.

But these things are what turn a good program into one that's tiresome to use. You can beat the poster until you're blue in the face, but it won't stop inconsistent tab order and lack of keyboard shortcuts* from being a pain in the arse. A program that does just what you want will still cause your blood to boil, if keypresses don't do what you expect and obvious little things have simply been ignored. (And it's not like your expectations aren't borne of using a wide range of other Windows programs.)

The slightly aggrieved tone is not a problem. No need to hold back. Minor annoyances like these create anger and frustration, and the fact that many people don't seem to notice (or, if they do, don't think it important) means you have to put your point across forcefully. Joel seems to have a pretty thick skin anyway.

* -- those being problems that bug me in particular. I can't speak for the Citydesk-specific problems.

P.S. context menus appear at the position indicated by the cursor for the device used to activate them. (Err... got that? :) For the desktop, there is no text caret, so keyboard-activated context menus appear at a default position. For a text editor, they should appear at the caret position. The caret indicates the screen position at which typing will have an effect. This is the same as the context menu appearing at the mouse cursor when you press the right mouse button.

Insert half smiley here.
Saturday, March 6, 2004

Anon -- sounds like the shortcut doesn't appear at all, so it's probably not that. I seem to remember that in the absence of any defined (with &) shortcut characters Windows will pick a default set for useful controls based on the first letter of the last text static before the control in the tab order. So maybe that is what's happening.

Insert half smiley here.
Saturday, March 6, 2004

I apologize to Joel for my tone. No excuses on my part. Maybe i got carried away.

As for nitpicking, I was about to type in something on Indians not putting proper commas in resumes here, i shall desist. I hope he refrains from below the belt punching from his altar.

I am not an anonymous coward who blasted a fine product. I did give my E Mail. Joel knows who i am. And lastly,I shall refrain from impolite langauge.

A Regular poster from India
Saturday, March 6, 2004

"Aricles, Properties, Extras" . No way to navigate between tabs using the keyboard.

You can use Ctrl + Tab to go forwards or Shift + Ctrl + Tab to go backwards. That's a standard Windows shortcut for tabs.

John Topley (
Saturday, March 6, 2004

'Masters in Usability Engineering'

I got one of those in my cornflakes this morning.  I'm sure Joel is happy to reap the rewards of all your unpaid efforts though, well done!

there's a new one everyday
Saturday, March 6, 2004

I found the list of issues enlightening.  There are several kinds of usability -- deep usability, surface usability, and functionality.  Software can be good but still have flaws in these areas, and I think most of the criticisms the poster made are valid, although mainly in the surface area.  The good thing about these is usually, they can be fixed fairly quickly without having a big impact on other parts of the program.

I think the list was also useful for other developers as a reminder of areas of your program you might not consider; I've seen lots of apps with poor handling of keyboard navigation.

Ben Combee
Saturday, March 6, 2004

>>"Why do Joel's cronies defend him so much?

This bloke... he's pointed out inconsistencies in the UI, coming from a company whose chief has written a *book* on UI design."

Exactly.  Instead of attacking the messenger, how about responding to the message.

Joe on Software (Joe)
Saturday, March 6, 2004

Thanks for the list!

Actually we'd love to have you as a beta tester for version 3.0. This is exactly the kind of detailed feedback we LOVE in our beta tests... it's all little things that can be fixed in 1 minute each :)

When we start the beta test for 3.0, I'll announce it on Joel on Software, and I think we're going to have to figure out some major reward for the most useful feedback. (During the 2.0 beta we got so much useful feedback of this sort from one user, we sent him a 512 MB upgrade for his computer. Also, half the bugs he was reporting were a result of his using a 64 MB computer ;)

Joel Spolsky
Fog Creek Software
Saturday, March 6, 2004

Sounds like you shouldn't have sent him an upgrade, then :)

Saturday, March 6, 2004

Actually it was my 128 MB machine and I was delighted and totally surprised when I got the memory in the mail. I'm not worthy.

Saturday, March 6, 2004

I want to respond to some of the usability objections raised

"Aricles, Properties, Extras" . No way to navigate between tabs using the keyboard.

Someone pointed out that it can be done by Ctrl+Tab. Right. But how many users would know this?. Best is to add a Ampersand to the first letter. Users can recognize this. No user will read the MSDN manual where it is given.

Umm, with regards the 'hidden' shortcut key for 'Find Next', isn't that just a case of Control Panel | Display | Appearance | Effects | "Hide underlined letters for keyboard navigation until I press the Alt key" being turned on by default in Windows 200 0 and XP ?

I did press the Alt key. Still not visible

The placing of the right context menu at the top left of the screen is the Windows default placement for some things

As mentioned earlier,  this bug is not unique to City Desk. Almost every product i have used has this bug.

You may argue that most of them are minor. TRUE. But top notch usability means you get the work done without opening the help manual. I mean open the find-replace dialog. Should work like any other find-replace dialog. Some one who selects some text and goes to the find-replace box will expect to find it there.

A golden rule is: Never invent your own controls/own way to do common things. The most intuitive products work likeyou expect it to work. This is the reason i think the Lotus Infobox is the greatest thing that happenned to usability (atleast for lotus). Not a single struggle. Even the icons are so intuitive thats its a pleasure to look at it.

And lastly, thanks to Joel for taking it in the right spirit. I hope i have the time to test 3.0 and give good feedback and help  a little bit and contribute and make citydesk a better product.

Thank you all

A regular Poster from India
Saturday, March 6, 2004


All your Beta Testers who make significant contributions should at least get an autographed copy of your book.  You are a famous author after-all.

Ken Klose
Sunday, March 7, 2004

Do beta testers get a free copy of City Desk (that is to say the one that has all the bugs fixed?)

Stephen Jones
Sunday, March 7, 2004

"Articles, Properties, Extras" . No way to navigate between tabs using the keyboard.

Someone pointed out that it can be done by Ctrl+Tab. Right. But how many users would know this?. Best is to add a Ampersand to the first letter. Users can recognize this. No user will read the MSDN manual where it is given.

I don't think you should do this. It's totally non-standard and would just make the application look odd. The fact is, most users don't even know what the underlined letters mean in Windows.

John Topley (
Sunday, March 7, 2004


see Item 8.

Perpetual Newbie II
Sunday, March 7, 2004

I can't comment on specfic complaints because I don't use CD, but...

> The "Find Next"  has no shortcut key

Nor does IE. So what? Notepad does. In some versions. Like I say, so what? Not all applications are the same and they do not all provide the same features.

> "Font Sizes". It shows font sizes from 1 to 7. Next to 1 it says "Smallest". Yeh. I remember Arithmetic well enough to know that if there are numbers from 1-7, 1 is the smallest.

Rather a shame about H1, H2, etc. in HTML - where the lower the number the larger, generally, the text - then, isn't it? Naturally I am an outsider and so can only speculate, but I would think that that is why the hint is there. Of course, they could have made them the same order as the HTML Hx tags but then people would have complained that they were the "wrong" way round.

> The "Ok" and "Cancel" buttons should be in the bottom right hand side of dialogs

Actually even MS can't make up their minds on this one: Lay out the major command buttons either stacked along the upper right border of the dialog box or lined up across the bottom of the dialog box. Position the most important button — typically the default command — as the first button in the set. If you use the OK and Cancel buttons, group them together. (

Regardless, there is nothing there about OK/Cancel needing to be on the bottom right-hand side.

Monday, March 8, 2004

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