Friday, December 09, 2005

A $3 billion user interface error

Slashdot reports on $3 billion trading error made by the Japanese financial services firm, Mizuho. It appears that someone at the bank accidentally sold 610,000 shares, valued at $3.1 billion for 1 yen each. Ouch! The good news is that market rules built into the trading system that limit price fluctuations ensured that nobody was able to actually take delivery of the shares yet; so the actual loss so far has been "only" $224 million. Hey, I'll settle for $1 million.

Following Japanese tradition, Mitzuho president Makoto Fukuda committed ritual hara-kiri before the Economics and Financial Services minister Kaoru Yosana. His entrails were then served for lunch in the company's swank basement cafeteria where employees spend their lunch hour playing Su-Do-Ku. Not really, but that could have happened if Japan were running the world.

Only two posters on Slashdot so far have brought up the issue of a user interface error - although nobody has mentioned any of the words "user", "interface", "design", "usability", "interaction", or "engineering". Don Norman has always made a strong point about designing for error. Errors will happen. That's for sure. The thing is to prevent the occurrence of catastrophic errors, as in Three Mile Island. This particular belonged to the genre erratum catastrophus. How the heck did the designers not anticipate this? This is a nice example to use when arguing in favor of not leaving software development entirely to alpha geeks but to focus quite heavily on interaction design.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Bad Design Dept.: WinXP and Flash Drives

When I stick a SanDisk Cruzer Flash Drive into my XP machine's USB slot, I get a succession of 4 (four) messages on the task bar telling me -- in stages -- that my system is recognizing and eventually has recognized the drive. Each time, I need to click on the message bubble to make it go away. Finally, I get a dialog box asking me to choose among several diferent tasks I might want to perform on the flash drive (display picture, play a movie, etc.). I have to make this too, go away. Annoying as heck. When I stick the same Flash drive into a Mac USB port, the drive simply shows on on the desktop as a drive, thereby letting me know -- visually -- that all is okay. All I need to do then is to click open the drive and use it like any other drive.

Why have Microsoft's designers -- in their infinite lack of wisdom -- decided to do it this way? If the system is smart enough to know the nature of the device plugged in (flash drive, camera, MP3 player, etc.) why should it present me with irrelevant choices that would either annoy or confuse me, depending on my level of expertise?

Even more annoying is the procedure for unplugging the drive. You need to right-click on the flash drive icon on the task bar, when you get the message, safely remove hardware. Next, a dialog box comes up with one or more icons on it, depending on the number of devices plugged into various USB ports. In this case, I get one icon with the legend, USB Mass Storage Device. Those same words are repeated outside of a box on the same window with the additional explanation of at location 0. I have no idea what that location is, and I don't care either. The lay user would be needlessly confused by this.

But wait, there's more! I need to click on the icon, and then on a Stop button. Whereupon, I get one more dialog box now with three icons with the following labels next to them:

USB Mass Storage Device
Generic volume - (I:)
SanDisk Cruzer Micro USB Device

Which one of these am I supposed to click on? Why weren't these choices presented the first time? Anyway, I am guessing the right answer to be SanDisk Cruzer Micro USB Device, which I select and then click on an OK button. (BTW, it turns out that it doesn't matter which icon I click on; the result is the same, making the whole idea of presenting choices moot.) Magically, all three icons and their respective labels disappear and then another message appears on the task bar telling me it is safe to remove the flash drive. I still need to close the message box by clicking on the Close button.

Now, that is a lot of work to just remove a flash drive. How does it work on the Mac? One of two ways:

1. Drag the flash drive to the trash can. You can then safely remove the drive.
2. Open the hard drive and click the eject icon next to the flash drive. The flash drive icon disappears and you may then safely remove the drive.

That's it, no unnecessary messages. Why, again, have Microsoft's designers insisted on this approach? I suspect that flash drives and other removable devices just sneaked up on them; they never anticipated the use of devices that are frequently plugged in and removed after short-term use. So this tedious procedure is the best workaround they could come up with.

Will Vista be any better? Stay tuned.