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The British School of User Interface

by Bartosz Milewski

Door image

Are you thinking of hiring a British contractor or firm to design the UI of you product? Before you do that, take a trip to the old country and get some first-hand reconnaissance. That's what I did. The result of my trip is that I came to appreciate the whimsical British approach to solving user-interface problems. Please, don't try it at your software company (or, should I say, stop doing it?).

Exhibit one.

Take an English train. It's easy to get on. The trouble starts when the train arrives at your destination. You go to the door with the idea that you can open it and exit the train.

Look at this picture. Do you see any kind of a handle? In the obvious location, you see a steel plate. You push it, kick it--nothing! Maybe there is a button? You start searching, more and more desperately as the train gets ready to continue its ride. If you are lucky, you'll notice a blue plaque above the window.

Here's what it says:

Door Sign That's right! The handle is outside. Please notice that the climate in those parts of the world is not very user-friendly. It gets cold in winter and it rains a lot. I presume they don't have special winter railway cars. On second thought, I shouldn't presume anything.

Think of similar examples in software applications. A developer, instead of putting the control in the obvious place, writes instructions about where to find it instead. The idea presumably is to reuse the same piece of UI. Hey, there is a knob outside, why duplicate the same code inside!

tub image

Exhibit two.

You rent a room in a seaside resort. You go to the bathroom to have a refreshing bath. You look at the bathtub and you see the usual British arrangement of faucets--one with hot water, another with cold water. It gives you low-level control of the flow of the two ingredients of a perfect bath. After all, the mixing of the two streams can be done in the bathtub itself.

You have to admire the logical simplicity of the design. That is, until you come up with the idea of rinsing your hair. Should you rinse your hair under the hot water faucet and risk scolding? Or should you open the cold water faucet and tough it out under ice-cold stream? Or should you try oscillating your head vigorously between the two, to average out their extreme temperatures?

I don't know how the Brits used to solve this problem before the tourist invasion (I bet they oscillated their heads). The fact is that they had to come up with some solution for the hair-rinsing mutants from the Continent.

bath imageHere is the solution.

It's a simple device that can be attached to the faucets, mix the two streams, and output one stream of water whose temperature is the weighted average of the unpleasant extremes. It's not perfect, the rubber sleeves have a tendency of slipping, but it'll do in a pinch.

Where have we seen this types of solutions in software? All over the place. In programming, this design device is called a kludge. You start with a badly designed UI and after numerous complaints from the mutant users, you add a kludge on top of it. A.K.A a "quick and dirty" solution.

shower controls

Exhibit three.

And here's the piece de resistance, exhibit three. The above mentioned hotel was forced by the mutants coming from overseas to install a shower. The Brits must have hired their top guy to design this user interface. Try figuring it out. The only control you see is the knob. It can be turned left and cold water starts running from the showerhead. You already have a headache from oscillating your head, and you would really like to rinse your hair under some warm water. But you are completely baffled and finally give up. You call the reception. They tell you, in very polite terms, to RTFM! Please look for the typewritten note tucked under the shelf over the sink.

It even has an underlined title Shower Instructions. Duh!

Aaaah, so that's what the cord was for! It's not an alarm cord that you pull when you are dying alone in the bathroom (no such thing there)! The cord is quite a distance from the shower proper, and there is no obvious connection to the box with the knob. The knob, which has a dual purpose, and does different things depending on the indicator light and on the pullean state of the cord. And, by the way, turning off the water does not switch the shower off, so don't forget to pull this cord again (just once, or you risk switching it on again!).

For a software engineer all this looked soooooooo familiar! I was home, at last!