Today I tried to help a friend who is a great computer scientist, but not a JS person use a JS module he found on Github. Since for the past 6 years my day job is doing usability research & teaching at MIT, I couldn’t help but cringe at the slog that this was. Lo and behold, a pile of unnecessary error conditions, cryptic errors, and lack of proper feedback. And I don’t feel I did a good job communicating the frustration he went through in the one hour or so until he gave up.
Yesterday, I released dabblet. One of its aspects that I took extra care of, is it’s keyboard navigation. I used many of the commonly established application shortcuts to navigate and perform actions in it. Some of these naturally collided with the native browser shortcuts and I got a few bug reports about that.
Actually, overriding the browser shortcuts was by design, and I’ll explain my point of view below.
Native apps use these shortcuts all the time. For example, I press Cmd+1,2,3 etc in Espresso to navigate through files in my project. People press F1 for help. And so on. These shortcuts are so ingrained in our (power users) minds and so useful that we thoroughly miss them when they’re not there. Every time I press Cmd+1 in an OSX app and I don’t go to the first tab, I’m distraught. However, in web apps, these shortcuts are taken by the browser. We either have to use different shortcuts or accept overriding the browser’s defaults.
Using different shortcuts seems to be considered best practice, but how useful are these shortcuts anyway? They have to be individually learned for every web app, and that’s hardly about memorizing the “keyboard shortcuts” list. Our muscles learn much more slowly than our minds. To be able to use these shortcuts as mindlessly as we use the regular application shortcuts, we need to spend a long time using the web app and those shortcuts. If we ever do get used to them that much, we’ll have trouble with the other shortcuts that most apps use, as our muscles will try to use the new ones.
Using the de facto standard keyboard shortcuts carries no such issues. They take advantage of muscle memory from day one. If we advocate that web is the new native, it means our web apps should be entitled to everything native apps are. If native editors can use Cmd+1 to go to the first tab and F1 for help, so should a web editor. When you’re running a web app, the browser environment is merely a host, like your OS. The focus is the web app. When you’re working in a web app and you press a keyboard shortcut, chances are you’re looking to interact with that app, not with the browser Chrome.
For example, I’m currently writing in WordPress’ editor. When I press Cmd+S, I expect my draft to be saved, not the browser to attempt to save the current HTML page. Would it make sense if they wanted to be polite and chose a different shortcut, like Alt+S? I would have to learn the Save shortcut all over again and I’d forever confuse the two.
Of course, it depends on how you define a web app. If we’re talking about a magazine website for example, you’re using the browser as a kind of reader. The app you’re using is still the browser, and overriding its keyboard shortcuts is bad. It’s a sometimes fine distinction, and many disagreements about this issue are basically disagreements about what constitutes a web app and how much of an application web apps are.
So, what are your thoughts? Play it safe and be polite to the host or take advantage of muscle memory?
Edit: Johnathan Snook posted these thoughts in the comments, and I thought his suggested approach is pure genius and every web UX person should read it:
On Yahoo! Mail, we have this same problem. It’s an application with many of the same affordances of a desktop application. As a result, we want to have the same usability of a desktop application—including with keyboard shortcuts. In some cases, like Cmd-P for printing, we’ll override the browser default because the browser will not have the correct output.
For something like tab selection/editing, we don’t override the defaults and instead, create alternate shortcuts for doing so.
One thing I suggest you could try is to behave somewhat like overflow areas in a web page. When you scroll with a scroll mouse or trackpad in the area, the browser will scroll that area until it reaches it’s scroll limit and then will switch to scrolling the entire page. It would be interesting to experiment with this same approach with other in-page mechanisms. For example, with tabs, I often use Cmd-Shift-[ and Cmd-Shift-] to change tabs (versus Cmd-1/2/3, etc). You could have it do so within the page until it hits its limit (first tab/last tab) and then after that, let the event fall back to the browser. For Cmd-1, have it select the first tab. If the user is already on the first tab, have it fall back to the browser.
I had to build the edit tags interface for an application I’m working on, so I took a good look at how these are implemented across many popular applications nowadays. It seems there are a few patterns that are used over and over, and I’m unsure which one is the most preferable by users, they all have their advantages and disadvantages. In this post I’m going to describe these patterns and list some of the pros and cons I think they have. For simplicity, I will focus on the tag editing interface itself, ignoring any tag suggestions and other extra features.
A couple hours ago, I received a notification email from Goodreads and unlike usually, I decided to actually visit the site (by the way, I believe that Goodreads, i.e. a last.fm for books, is an awesome idea but poorly implemented).When I did, I was quite annoyed to find out that I wasn’t already logged in, so I had to remember which one of my many passwords I had used for it and try them one by one. This is not a Goodreads fail, but a fairly common nuisance, since most (if not all) social websites behave that way.
“What if there was some magic involved?” Bill Scott & Theresa Neil advise interaction designers to ask themselves in a book I’m currently reading (highly recommended by the way). Well, I guess, if there was some magic involved, the site would “understand” that my click was initiated from an email and would automatically log me in and let me view whatever I was trying to.
I loved elastic textareas since the very first moment I used one (at facebook obviously). They let you save screen real estate while at the same time they are more comfortable for the end user. It’s one of the rare occasions when you can have your UI cake and eat it too!
However, I never liked the implementation of the feature. In case you never wondered how it’s done, let me explain it in a nutshell: All elastic textarea scripts (or at least all that I know of) create a hidden (actually, absolutely positioned and placed out of the browser window) div, copy some CSS properties from the textarea to it (usually padding, font-size, line-height, font-family, width and font-weight) and whenever the contents of the textarea change they copy them to the hidden div and measure it’s dimensions. It might be good enough for facebook, where the styling of those textareas is fairly simple and consistent throughout the site, or any other particular site, but as a generic solution? I never liked the idea.
If a web application has some sort of registration system (and most do), the registration page should be one of the most attractive, inviting, usable pages of it. It should make you to want to register, not repulse you. We don’t want the user to give up in the middle of filling it because they are fed up with it’s length or bad usability, or -even worse- not even attempt to do so, do we?
The most popular websites usually take this rule to heart and employ the simplest registration forms: Only the basic fields required, and most of the times, even without password/email confirmation.
I was wondering lately – what would be the simplest possible registration form?
I just read Jakob Nielsen’s recent post in which he urged web designers/developers to stop password masking due to it’s inherent usability issues. I found it an interesting read. Hey, at last, someone dared to talk about the elephant in the room!
In most cases password masking is indeed useless, but still, there are several cases where you need that kind of protection. He also points that out, suggesting a checkbox to enable the user to mask their entered password if they wish to do so. He also suggests that checkbox being enabled by default on sites that require high security.
I think the checkbox idea is really good, as long as it works in the opposite way: Password masking should always be the default and you should check the checkbox to show the characters you typed. This is in line with what Windows (Vista or newer) users are already accustomed to anyway
First of all, sorry for my long absence! I haven’t abandoned this blog, I was just really, really busy. I’m still busy, and this probably won’t change soon. However, I will still blog when I get too fed up with work or studying (this is one of these moments…). Now, let’s get to the meat.
In most web applications, even the simplest ones, the need for form handling will arise. There will be forms that need to be submitted, checked, processed or returned to the user informing them about any errors. A good empirical rule I try to follow is “Try not to produce URLs that don’t have a meaning if accessed directly”. It sounds simple and common-sense, doesn’t it? However, as Francois Voltaire said, “common sense is not so common”. I’ve seen variations of the following scenario several times, in several websites or even commercial web application software:
I’ve previously discussed many times the color picker I have to create, and blogged about my findings on the way. An essential component of most color pickers is a slider control.
Some might argue that I suffer from NIH syndrome, but I prefer to code things my way when I think I can do something even a bit better. After all, if nobody ever tries to reinvent the wheel, the wheel stands no chances of improvement. In this case, I wanted to build the most usable slider ever (at least for color picking uses), or -from an arguably more conservative point of view- something significantly more usable than the rest (if you think about it, the two statements are equivalent, the first one just sounds more arrogant 😛 ).
In this post I’m going to share some tips to increase a site’s usability that are very quick to implement. Not all of them are cross-browser, but they are the icing on the cake anyway, nobody would mind without them.