Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Major UI Failure At Apple

After writing 'Chrome: NSFW', I kind of shrugged and moved on. I kept Chrome on the Windows laptop I never use, answered some comments I got, and that was that. But right now, as a UI person, I am seething, over pretty much the exact same functionality. Because this time it has been included in Apple's Safari. And of all people they should have known better.

Mike downloaded the beta and alerted me to the fact that it also, in a copy of what I considered terrible about Chrome, has the functionality of showing your most frequently visited sites on a new empty tab as a grid of thumbnails, ostensibly so you can quickly click to the site you are likely to go to. And of course, with Mike being a well-rounded adult in the Internet age, some of those thumbnails are very personal and very, very NOT SAFE FOR WORK.

Basically, at any point in time, while using this program normally, you are one click away from being embarrassed in front of your co-workers, friends, children, or anyone else who glances at your screen, all because Safari doesn't support the reasonable, normal, human habits of separating private from public life, even when you use the same tools. This on the installed default browser on a major platform.

Look, I take my laptop to my clients. I don't have a work computer and a separate personal computer. And yes, off-work I browse stuff that I should not take into work. And I am not special in that. This is how free-lancers, road-warriors, people who take their work-laptop home, or people who simply goof off at work from time to time, live. This is how they are. And we can do this because our tools, our programs, are predictable. We know what they will do. Even if you, gentle reader, are now thinking "well, serves you right for reading smut", do you really want to be in the situation that when your boss walks by your cube, or comes over to check your work, you are just one click away from showing how you actually go to Popcap Games and Knitting Patterns and eBay more often than the Intranet work page? Or say you want to show your spouse this new site so you open a new tab, oops, there was the jeweler's page you have been browsing all week for that perfect surprise gift. Which is now no longer a surprise.

I can't install this beta to check, but I have been told it takes setting two settings in the Preferences to make this potential professional and personal disaster not happen. That makes it even worse to me, because so few people understand (or ever even open) Preferences panels.

The worst part for me, personally, as a UI professional, is what this represents in the history of Apple. This was the company that harbored and nurtured and pushed personal computing UI design. For years the best book on how to design a Graphical User Interface was the big book of Apple Human Interface Guidelines. This company produced field luminaries, Tognazinni, Laurel, Raskin, for starters, who all in their own way approached and evangelized the same idea over and over: we have to make the computer predictable or it will never stop being scary and it will never be accepted. The whole idea of metaphors, direct manipulation, the stage craft of making screens of little pictures to click and pick up and manipulate, was about making the user feel secure that what they thought would happen when they clicked or dragged or pointed, would actually happen. That they always knew 'what was going on'. You do A expecting B, and B would actually happen. The worst bugs were the ones where the stage management broke down and B did not actually happen, leaving the user lost, confused, angry, and suspicious of their shiny new box, pushing them away from being more productive and connected and creative. Predictability is what makes tools dissappear from cognitive view so only the goals of the work remain. Yet here in Safari the Apple UI team is baking unpredictability right in, at the top, at the beginning, at the front. Yes, unpredictability, because let me tell you, humans actually do not remember how often they go to a site, how often they clicked reload, how often the site reloaded itself, and therefore cannot predict how and when that site will show up on that mosaic of top-used sites.

Did these people in Cupertino not actually work with Chrome before they copied this? Did they not spend 5 minutes and go, oh man, we can't let this happen inside a workplace, all our advocates who have been working so hard to make OS X accepted in the workplace will look like buffoons when they install this and fire it up the very first day.

The first time I complained about this, when I discussed Chrome, I was told I should just put my browser into 'Erase All Tracks' mode when I was doing my non-work browsing. Because the browser changed and became unpredictable, the peanut gallery said I should change my habits to fit my tools. Well, I actually do want my browser to remember my passwords and cookies for sites I browse when off-the-clock. It has so far and it has worked fine because I know what my browser will show when. My tools either fit me or I grab another, and I am a Firefox user anyway. But it baffles me that the toolmakers of this very important and central tool seem to not have seriously thought about how their product will fit their user's lives, and are instead experimenting with crap that will embarrass their users because the toolmakers are playing some kind of game of UI one-upmanship with a recent upstart. When they have such a wonderful legacy to uphold.

Thank gawd it is just a beta. They can still correct it before release without too much egg on their face. Let's hope they do.