Computing stuff tied to the physical world

Flow – the user perspective

In Software on Sep 14, 2013 at 00:01

This is the first of a three-part four-part series on designing big apps (“big” as in not embedded, not necessarily many lines of code – on the contrary, in fact).

Ok, so maybe what follows is not the user perspective, but my user perspective?

I’m not a fan of pushing clicking buttons. It’s a computer invention, and it sucks.

Interfaces (I’m not keen on the term user interfaces either, but it’s more to the point than just “interfaces”) – anyway, interfaces need interaction to indicate what information you want to see, and to perform a real action, i.e. something that has effect on some permanent state. From setting up preferences or a configuration, to turning on a light.

But apart from that, interaction to fetch or update something is tedious, unwanted, silly, and a waste of time. Pushing a button to see the time is 2,718,281 times more inconvenient than looking at the time. Just like asking for something involves a lot more interaction (and social subtleties) than having the liberty to just do it.

When I look outside the window, I expect to see the actual weather. And when I see information on a screen, I expect it to be up-to-date. I don’t care if the browser does constant refreshes to pull changes from a server or whether it’s set up to respond to push notifications coming in behind the scenes. When I see “22.7°C”, it needs to be a real reading, with a known and acceptable lag and accuracy – unless it’s historical data.

This goes a lot further than numbers and graphs. When I see a button, then to me that is a promise (and invitation) that some action will be taken when I push it. Touch on mobile devices has the advantage here, although clicking via the mouse or typing a power-user keyboard shortcut is often perfectly acceptable – even if slightly more indirect.

What I don’t want is a button which does nothing, or generates an error message. If that button isn’t intended to be used, then it should be disabled or it shouldn’t be there at all:

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 11.56.54

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 11.57.17

That’s the “Graphs” install page in HouseMon (the wording could have been better).

When a list or graph of readings is shown on-screen, this needs to auto-update in real time. That’s the whole point of HouseMon – access to specific information (that choice is a preference, and will require interaction) to see what’s going on. Now – or within the last few minutes, in the case of sensors which are periodically sending out their readings. A value without an indication of its “up-to-date-ness” is useless. That could be either implicit by displaying it in some special way if the information is stale (slowly turning red?), or explicit, by displaying a time stamp next to it (a bit ugly and tedious).

Would you want it any other way when doing online banking? Would you accept seeing your account balance without guarantee that it is recent?nah, me neither :) – so why do we put up with web pages with copies of some information, at some point in time, getting obsolete the very moment that page is shown?

When “on the web” – as a user – I want to deal with accurate information. When I see something tagged as “updated 2 minutes ago”, then I want to see that “2″ change into a “3″ within the next minute. See GitHub for an example of this. It works, it makes sense, and it makes the whole technology get out of the way: the web should be an intermediary between some information and me. All the stuff in between is secondary.

Information needs to update – we need to stop copying it into a web page, and send that copy off to the browser. All the lipstick in the world won’t help if what we see is a copy of what we’re looking for. As developers, we need to stop making web sites fancy – we should make them live first and then make them gorgeous. That’s what RIA‘s and SPA‘s are about.

One more thing – not only does information need to flow, these flows should be visualised:

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 11.02.15

Such a user interface can be used during development to manage data flows and to design software which ties each result shown on-screen back to its origin. In tomorrow’s apps, every change should propagate – all the way to the pixels shown on-screen by the browser.

Now let’s go back to static web servers to make it happen. Stay tuned…

  1. Curious what bubbles up from the unconscious (maths trained) mind.

    2,718,281 uses the transcendental first seven digits of e and is prime to boot ;>)

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