August 15, 2007

When bad interaction happens to good people

About a year ago, puzzled by the language in a software-update dialog box, Geoff Pullum wrote ("If you can answer this, you are not paying attention", 7/10/2006):

Producing language that other people will be able to understand involves not just having a picture in your mind of the scenario and designing a nice-looking (and policy-compliant) dialog box that you feel represents your view of it. You have to deploy a shared linguistic system, according to established rules, using lexemes of known meaning, to present that picture to others in a way that will work for them. You have to consider whether there are other ways of viewing the situation at hand. You have to examine the wording you have chosen to see if it has ambiguities or unclarities. You have to put yourself in the place of a person who did not work with the developers of the operating system, someone who sees your dialog box without the benefit of any prior experience with the way you conceptualize things, and you have to ask yourself whether they would understand what to do.

I've recently encountered a web application that exhibits the most intense and systematic violation of this advice that I've ever seen. Unfortunately, it's an interface that I'm in some sense responsible for.

Allow me to hold you with my glittering eye, like the Ancient Mariner, and tell the tale. (Though if you're impatient, you can evade the backstory and go directly to the software description...)

The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared, and the university where I work installed a new computer application that will make it possible to keep much better track of maintenance and repair activities. Better information on the history of individual repair requests will be available faster, and planners will have access to a whole new world of summaries organized by time, location, type of work, and so on.

This system, known as Maximus FacilityFocus, does many other things besides, and is highly buzzword-compliant, as the company's web site explains:

FacilityFocus® allows your organization to improve, automate and integrate all of your existing facility management, asset management and maintenance operations. Based on open, object-oriented development technologies, FacilityFocus is Web-enabled and offers compatibility with multiple operating systems, multiple databases and multiple platforms.

MAXIMUS has developed an unparalleled level of depth and breadth of coverage in FacilityFocus, allowing our customers to confidently manage millions of square feet of buildings and associated assets. From work management and equipment maintenance, to inventory control and lease and contractor management, to linking with your ERP solution, FacilityFocus is designed as a flexible solution to work the way you do. To help you, as the asset manager, control budgets while in the midst of change, be it technological, managerial, or customer-driven.

The "Web-enabled" part means that the whole thing is available via web interfaces to all members of the university community, with each person's level of access to inputs and outputs controlled through the university's central Kerberos authentication system. Individuals can enter repair requests directly, and monitor the progress of their requests, without having to wait on the phone to talk to someone in an operations center attempting to translate their requests and questions into some combination of interaction with filing cabinets full of paper forms and commands to some clunky old DOS-era application querying an archaic database.

Truly, this is all a big step forward. What's not to like?

Before I get to that, let me mention that one of my jobs is Faculty Director of my university's residential system, known as "College Houses and Academic Services". There are about 7,000 students, faculty and staff who live in these residences -- including me -- and every week, a certain number of us need to report a leaking faucet or a faulty light switch or a broken window. We used to do this by calling the people in the facility operations center, or by interacting with a web application that basically just sent an email to one of the same people, who would interact with the back-end systems to get the needed work taken care of.

But now, we're asking everyone to enter their (non-emergency) work requests via the web interface to FacilityFocus. And that web interface is a wonderful example of what can go wrong when a designer fails to heed Geoff's advice to "put yourself in the place of a person who did not work with the developers of the operating system, someone who sees your dialog box without the benefit of any prior experience with the way you conceptualize things, and ... ask yourself whether they would understand what to do".

I don't really know what the design process was in this case, but I suspect that the planners at Penn trusted the designers from Maximus, and the folks at Maximus who designed the interface were planning for use by building managers and accountants and other staff, to the extent that they were thinking about users at all and not just web-enabling the basic structure and function of their back-end database.

A few days ago, I got my first look at FacilityFocus. In a couple of weeks, thousands of undergraduates are going to start trying to use it. And when they run aground, as many of them probably will, they're going to complain to (people who will complain to) me. So I've written an underground guide, "The Legend of FacilityFocus", which uses the metaphor of beating a fantasy adventure game like The Legend of Zelda, and offers tips and tricks to make it to the final screen. If you want to know what I think (some of) the problems of the Maximus interface are, read the guide and you'll get the idea.

But adventure-game interaction is really the wrong metaphor. The designers of good adventure games have a excellent idea of what their target users are like, and they've carefully planned and tested for their users' reactions to each display and each event in the game. The obscurity and difficulty of the interaction is carefully crafted to be suspenseful, entertaining -- and eventually overcome. In contrast, an interface like FacilityFocus seems to be "mind blind".  The obscurity and difficulty of the interaction is a random result of an apparent failure to try to model user reactions at all.

I should say that the people at Penn who worked with Maximus to install this system are not only excellent managers but also excellent communicators, both one-on-one and in public presentations. But there's something about the indirect nature of communication through a software interface that seems to decouple good communicators from their normal ability to craft messages with the audience's reactions in mind. When the interface comes out of a set of committees spanning several organizations, the indirection is even greater, I guess, and the stage is set for a web-enabled interactive shipwreck.

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 15, 2007 09:51 AM