Volume 25 Number 11
Don't Get Me Started - A Real Pain in the Neck
By David Platt | November 2010
Not too long ago, the Microsoft.com homepage, shown here, was inflicting physical pain on its users. This pain was caused by deliberate decisions of professionals whose job it is to know better. Plattski hyperbole? Read and wince.
As on many homepages, the central display frame cycles through several highlight screens. The tabs beside the screen provide links to the highlights not currently displayed. The basic idea is sound, but this implementation stinks on several levels.
First, the tabs containing the links have text running vertically, which the reader has to tilt his head to read. Furthermore, the tabs and display pane scramble around as they cycle through the different displays: sometimes both tabs on the left, sometimes one on each side, sometimes both on the right.
This design violates what I call Plattski’s Law of Minimum Chiropractic, which states that inflicting on your user an injury requiring chiropractic care will not make him happy; therefore you should do it as seldom as possible. The peer-reviewed “Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association” published a study (see tinyurl.com/2972ea5) on the prevalence of neck pain in the general population, in which 54 percent of all adults reported experiencing neck pain within the past six months, with almost 5 percent of all adults reporting neck pain of a disabling level. Microsoft should put themselves in the shoes—or neck braces— of its users, and stop this nonsense.
One Microsoft Web designer said to me, “It’s just like a book. It looks cool. What’s the problem?” Here’s the problem: Book titles read this way because that’s the most convenient storage of the books themselves. It’s a compromise forced by the physical medium. Don’t inflict it on the virtual world where those physical constraints don’t apply.
Besides neck pain, the tabs and display pane jump around confusingly as they cycle through the display topics. The display area starts on the left with two tabs on its right. After seven seconds, it jumps to the right with a tab on each side. After another seven seconds it jumps again to the right, now having two tabs on its left. Finally it jumps a double step left, back to the starting position.
The user has to visually reacquire the display pane every time the image changes. If he wants to click a link, sometimes that link is on the left; but a few seconds later that same link is on the right. This major navigation structure is a Whac-A-Mole game.
Why did Microsoft Web designers do this? Probably the usual suspect: the toolkit contained a pre-fabricated component that worked this way, and the designer just picked it out of the toolkit because it existed. It’s like a 6 year old who got an Erector Set for Christmas, saying, “Look Ma, see what I can do! Isn’t it cool?”
Inflicting physical pain on grownups is not cool. It’s juvenile at best—malpractice at worst. It’s the toy image that Microsoft acquired in the early 1990s and today is desperately trying to shed. This doesn’t help.
The goal of rotating highlights with links can be accomplished far less painfully and more pleasingly, as in the MSN Lifestyle page. Users don’t tilt their heads. The links always occupy the same location, as does the display area. It’s easy to use, but apparently not cool enough for the main site designers.
Late update: The week this article was filed (Sept. 20), Microsoft unveiled a much-improved design. The highlight topics are shown all at once in separate panels. There’s no motion, no need for any links to display hidden topics. Maybe this column leaked and the designers realized their sins. They annoyed and confused many users in the meantime, though—I first saw the jumping, neck-bending design in April 2009. But now I know you readers are on the job, ready to pounce if they backslide.
I will allow the site designer to reply in this column provided he begins, “Forcing my users to tilt their heads, and making the display area and links jump around left, right and back again, made my users happier and more productive because …”
David S. Platt teaches Programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.