Usability – Real and Virtual

Alright, fine! I’m back and I should be posting more often, but I’m lazy. Has it ever bothered you that software developers are often terrible at designing interfaces? These guys are, and I am too. But software developers aren’t the only ones…

Microwave Ovens are the worst offenders of keypads on appliances. There is no standard, so it is a free-for-all whenever an appliance maker designs a new oven. Here is the keypad on a 1993 GE SpaceMaker:

Microwave Oven

How do you enter 1:30, judging from this image? You’re thinking “just press 1, 3, 0” but you’d be wrong. Actually, to enter exact cook times on this cooker, you have to press “TIME COOK” first. So for some reason, it is now faster to enter 1:30 by pressing 1 (which gives 1:00) and “ADD 30 SECONDS” (which gives 1:30). A word to GE – number keypads should all work as expected, okay? And we expect them to work when we first press them. Imagine having a cell phone where you had to press a “DIAL NUMBER” button before dialing the number.

I’m a little upset with my microwave, as you can see.

Here’s another useability flaw that I came across today. This is the page shown when you click “Help Center” at, where I have one my domains registered:

As you can see, it presents a FAQ index. But it doesn’t show the most popular FAQs. It does allow for searching the FAQs, but at first glance a user won’t notice that, because it is in a separate box that includes a list of links to other locations. Wonderful. Next you’ll see the “Contact Us” link, which takes you to a webform where you can fill in your name, email, problem description, and “traceroute if it is a connection problem with one of your sites.” Are you kidding me?

They don’t provide any contact email, phone number or IM. A hint to all web startups: make it EASY for the customer to get answers from a real person. FAQs are fun to make, and sometimes fun to read, but are useless when not exhaustive knowledgebases (such as Microsoft’s KB). For a real world metaphor, read on.

You’ve just walked up to the Customer Service desk at your local Walmart SuperCenter. There is no receptionist nor representative. There is no telephone. There is only a 3 ring binder which, upon opening, reveals a list of questions that Walmart customers frequently ask. The top page is an index, and thumbing through it you see answers to all kinds of questions. Not surprisingly, you are unable to find the answer to your question. Now you have noticed that there is a ticket machine. It is tucked away to one corner, so you didn’t even see it when you first approached the desk. You take a ticket, and read the text on the back of the ticket: “Thank you for your inquiry. You should receive a response within the next 48 hours.”

We would never put up with this at Walmart, so why do so many of us put up with it on Customer Support websites?