Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Third Life, Fourth Life, ...

I was in a discussion today with a colleague of mine (I'll call him Jim). He was asking my opinion of an important message he put at the end of his application installer. I suggested some minor tweaks, which he appreciated. But I also asked him to emphasize things, possibly by an alert or by an extra dedicated panel (most installers are wizards). His comment was that doing so would only aid maybe 10% more of the users.

What sad but true observation.

I was taken back about a year earlier when I remember standing at the back of a training class watching one of our sales engineers using a product I designed. He was working his way through a guided work flow. When an error message came up (you know, the one with the big red X on it), he couldn't click it away fast enough. Breaking with best practices, I interrupted him asking him what the error message was and he didn't know.

This was truly an eye-opener for me. To him, an interrupting dialog/alert was a nuisance to be disposed of as quickly as possible. It was impeding his work flow. I try to put a lot of effort into the information content of error messages to be as helpful as possible to the end user. Was all that effort wasted? I liken careful error handling to putting guard rails on a winding mountainous road.

Back to my conversation with Jim.

We were discussing possible changes to user interfaces. I remarked that maybe with virtual reality becoming commonplace, we could actually be more effective in informing users of the severity of problems. Maybe a future application would have a user traveling down a path, say a winding mountain path. When a severe error occurs, rather than a dialog, we could actually push them off a virtual cliff. At least the experience would be hard to dismiss and might even be memorable.

Maybe instead of giving the user the Ok/Cancel button of today, such a future application might present a button with the label "Respawn?"