The Logic of the Illogic...

By Gerd Waloszek, with a contribution by Gudrun Krebs, both SAP User Experience, SAP AG – July 24, 2007

On our SAP-internal SAP User Experience Website, we publish a series of articles called "DAU reports," in which authors from UX report failures of computer users, where these may feel like the "dumbest assumable user," or DAU in short. Usually, these stories are only for internal use. In this editorial, however, I would like to present a recent story by Gudrun Krebs and add a few comments to it.

 

The Story

Gudrun Krebs, from SAP User Experience wrote:

Yesterday, I was able to save the day for a despaired e-mail beginner, called Maria. Maria owns a small company and, since a couple of weeks, offers her customers the option of contacting her company via e-mail. Meanwhile, she has become proficient in reading e-mails in her inbox, replying to them and creating new ones. Today, however, she received an e-mail saying: "Edit the data below and forward this e-mail to alex.schreiber@tcg.de."

e-mail in MS Outlook

Figure 1: A fake e-mail demonstrating the case...

As we all know, depending on the e-mail application you are using and the format of the e-mail, it might not be not possible to edit an e-mail that's in the inbox. Thus, Maria was stuck between a rock and a hard place, so to say. She complained: "As soon as I forward the e-mail, it will be gone without leaving me the chance to modify it!"

Luckily, I was able to solve the puzzle by telling her that the mail-system did not even know whom to forward the e-mail (even though the recipient was included in the body of the e-mail!). Therefore, clicking the Forward button would be safe and would only open the e-mail for editing. Maria believed me, and her day was saved!

Nevertheless, this incident was a real eye-opener for me, because it revealed how imprecise and ambiguous the text "Forward" really is: The e-mail is not at all forwarded after you click the Forward button. Instead, the resulting action is just a "preparation stage for forwarding." The actual forwarding is called Send and initiated with the Send button.

While Gudrun focuses on the problems that first-time users have with illogical user interfaces, such as this one, I would like to move a bit beyond the first-time user aspect.

 

The Illogical Is Widespread, if not Even "Standard"...

Gudrun's nice little story reveals one of many examples of illogical bits and pieces in today's graphical user interfaces. They puzzle first-time users and may leave them stuck. But interestingly, these illogical bits seem to disturb only first-time users. Nobody else seems to take notice of them. Obviously, once we got the idea, we simply ignore the lack of logic and go "back to normal" – as we do in so many cases in our daily life. After a while, we have even forgotten that it is illogical what we see on the user interface and how we manage it.

But the story does not end here. We may find the same illogical behavior to be widespread, it may even have become a "de-facto standard." Look at other e-mail applications, and you will find more or less the same behavior as Gudrun described for MS Outlook (probably, it has been there since Eudora and other pioneering e-mail applications). Figure 2 shows Apple Mail – and, more or less, the same buttons:

Apple Mail shows more or less the same buttons as MS Outlook

Figure 2: Apple Mail – more or less the same buttons as in MS Outlook...

And, as Gudrun already reported for MS Outlook, when you are on the forward or reply screen, you will find a Send button in Apple Mail as well (see figure 3):

Send button on forward screen in Apple Mail

Figure 3: Apple Mail – The Forward screen features a Send button

These similarities, however, do not mean that Apple Mail completely copied MS Outlook's behavior. See the Aftermath below for a "small but nice" design difference.

 

... And Persists!

Finally, I would like to present an example demonstrating that illogical features can have a high degree of persistence. In the case of the Apple Macintosh trash can, it has persisted for more than 20 years. The Mac OS trash can (see figure 4) is not only used for deleting files, as in Windows (which has a trash can since Windows 95), but it is also used for ejecting (or disconnecting) devices. Windows users typically panic when they watch Mac users dragging a device icon to the trash can. They expect the device to be erased. Instead, it is simply ejected (if physically possible) or disconnected, no reason to panic... This behavior has always been criticized, but never changed – not even in Mac OS X, which changed quite a lot with respect to the behavior of the user interface.

Mac OS X trash can

Figure 4: The Mac OS X trash can – slightly enlarged...

 

Conclusion

What can we conclude from these observations? Some people probably would like to start an argument with me, stating that the described behavior is not at all illogical, and is there for this and that reason. Maybe they are correct, but that is not the point here. Personally, I would like to take a more philosophical position and state that life is inherently illogical. Graphical user interface are just a part of life. So why should they make an exception? In the end, these illogical bits provide computer savvy people with a chance to shine in front of beginners – isn't that reason enough for having them?

 

Aftermath

Only after I had carefully looked at my screenshots of Apple Mail, I recognized a nice feature for Forward (and Reply and Send as well) that I had not taken notice of before: As long as there is no recipient for the e-mail, the Send button is disabled (see figure 5):

Figure 5: Apple Mail – The Send button is disabled as long as there is no recipient

As soon as you enter a recipient, the button turns into the enabled state (see figure 6):

Send button on forward screen in Apple Mail

Figure 6 : Apple Mail – The Send button is enabled as soon as a recipient has been entered

Needless to say that I checked MS Outlook for this feature. But I found that the Send button is not disabled if there is no e-mail recipient. Instead, if you click the Send button, a popup comes up telling you that you have to enter at least one name or distribution list into one of the recipient fields (see figure 7). Shame on Microsoft for such a – in my opinion – poor design!

If there is no reciepient, a popup comes up in MS Outlook

Figure 7: In MS Outlook the Send button is not disabled if you there is no recipient. If you click the Send button, a popup comes up, telling you that you have to fill certain recipient fields (sorry, no English version available...)

 

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