Cloudburst: thoughts on interface usability
Much as I hate to say it so soon in the programme, I really struggled with Thing 2, Cloudworks. As another blogger has noted, it’s quite a bitty site: fundamentally I can’t get a handle on what I’m looking at. Is it a resource store? A forum? A social networking site? I can see that the answer may be “(d) All of the above”, but a clearer steer on function and navigation would be great.
However, I’m finding it very interesting to reflect on my frustrations with the site, as they seem to me to be caused by issues that are universal and perennial – and therefore presumably avoidable?
Issue 1: what the heck is it?
As noted above, I can’t work out what I’m looking at: the site’s function isn’t clear to me. As a result – and far more significantly for learning designers – I can’t devise any criteria for evaluating what to investigate. If I click on a link will it take me to a discussion, or to a resource? If the latter, will that be a graphic, an eXe file, or a pdf document? And if it’s a document – is that a published article, a draft version, or a page from somebody’s notebook?
One link took me to a 404 Not Found page, which raises another issue: how old are these links, and who is maintaining them?
Issue 2: how do I use it?
So, I can see that there’s tons of potentially useful stuff in here, but I can’t make out how to find and get to it. I love the idea of an online community of LD practitioners, but I can’t work out an easy way to communicate with them. Now, I know that helpful posters will probably comment and let me know various ways in which I can do these things, but this gives rise to another, subtler point about our expectations and use of online material: I don’t want to be told, or taught, or shown how to use this site. I want it to be laid out in a way that’s intuitive enough for me to plunge in and start using it.
I’m used to interfaces that come and meet me halfway; sites that have a single aim and purpose that can be simply expressed – meet friends! share photos! tell the world what you’re doing in 140 characters! – and that have clear narrative or navigational pathways. I’m so used to intuitive interfaces, in fact, that I can no longer be bothered to work hard at decoding a non-intuitive site: I get bored and cross, and go back on Twitter to moan about it.
This wouldn’t be relevant except for the fact that I’d bet everything I own that all my students behave in exactly the same manner. Yes, I know this is deplorable. But stop and ask yourself: don’t you do the same? Don’t we all?
In 1989 Thomas Peters wrote a great article analysing OPAC transaction logs. Towards the end he lets the mask slip a little, writing in exasperation:
“It is amazing that some OPAC users willingly spend hours learning the intricacies of software they want to use on their personal computers, but they grow impatient spending five minutes learning the basic commands and structure of an online catalogue in the library” (Peters 1989, p.272).
I adore this quotation, and have used it often. I love the sheer exasperation in his tone of voice, and I love how his argument almost sounds convincing. Except of course it’s fallacious: the interface isn’t something you should ever have to ‘learn’. If you do, the interface itself becomes a barrier between you and the information it’s designed to make available. Like the best theatre lighting designs, you should only notice it when something’s gone wrong.
So I’m sorry for raining on Cloudworks’ parade, but I’m grateful for the thoughts it has inspired about online behaviour and expectations. And I promise I will go back and spend some time exploring in a less haphazard way: for the sake of this blog post, I owe it that : )