Re: Documenting a ridiculous user-interface?

Subject: Re: Documenting a ridiculous user-interface?
From: Chuck Martin <cwmartin -at- US -dot- ORACLE -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 19 May 1999 10:57:01 -0700

Geoff Hart wrote:
> Kathryn Northcut reports on data-entry software in which
> users <<... have to have NumLock on to use the keypad
> to enter numbers into the fields, BUT with NumLock on, the
> keyboard shortcuts for access to the menus are disabled (i.e.,
> the ALT key doesn't work).>>
> <rant> I thought about it for a while, and I really can't think
> of any valid reason for requiring your audience to go through
> such contortions simply to enter data; the only times I've ever
> used an application that required this--and I've been working
> with computers for more than 20 years now--was with
> mainframe applications in which the keypad is being used for
> preprogrammed functions. Is that the case? (If the keypad
> isn't serving two discrete functions, this kind of interface is
> simply inexcusable in the modern world.) In effect, I suspect
> you're being asked to document an unreasonable solution
> implemented by programmers too lazy or stubborn to
> implement it right. Speaking as a user, this would annoy me
> even more than my current pet peeve, being forced to double-
> click in a cell in Excel before I can edit what's in it.
> <<I must... [tell users to toggle NumLock off and on if they
> want to use both they keyboard shortcuts to menus AND the
> keypad for numeric entries.>>
> If you really can't sit down with the appropriate people and
> convince them just how awkward this interface is, then there's
> not a helluva lot you can do about the situation. Simply insert
> a note with a big [!] icon beside it that says something like
> "you can either enter data, by ensuring the num lock light is
> on, or access the menus from the keyboard, if the num lock
> light is off, or switch to a product produced by a company
> that actually cares about how you work". </rant>
> Speaking a little more seriously now that I've gotten that off
> my chest, my last suggestion probably is the way to go, albeit
> phrased a lot more helpfully and with considerably less
> sarcasm. You should also include this information in the
> "getting started" guide or tutorial to ensure that users
> understand the problems they'll be facing. If you can gently
> help your audience to absorb this manner of working with the
> software, then they'll grumble and learn to deal with it.
After all the ranting, which I wholeheartedly support in this case,
because it is quite a valid point, I have to disagree with the last

Telling a techncal writer to document around a usability bug is a crime,
one that should be punished by the offender having to use Lotus Notes
for email, at the very least.

I might make exceptions if the product release is near, but lazy
programming practices are the polar opposite of usable programs. (Note
the quote in my sig.) Maybe it's just a difference in work style, but I
tend to push on issues such as these, and remind everyone every step of
the way that the real goal is to produce a better product for the users.
I have enough experience in usability and UI design, plus a number of
books on the subject, to back up my assertions should programmers or
management pull a power play on a "mere" technical writer--which has
happened to me on plenty of occasions.

By the same token, there are times when I just get tired of fighting,
fighting for users, fighting to simply be heard. At some point, the you
decide that the fight just isn't worth it, that the company is committed
to releasing crappy software, and you polish the resume and move on to
where your skills and knowledge are respected and valued.

"[Programmers] cannot successfully be asked to design for users
because...inevitably, they will make judgments based on the
difficult of coding and not on the user's real needs."
- Alan Cooper
"About Face: The Essentials of User Interface Design"

Chuck Martin
Principal Technical Writer, Oracle Developer
Tools Division, Oracle Corporation


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