Kiwi simplifies human-gadget interface

Expat Kiwi Richard Mander was one of the few who liked Clippy the Windows office assistant, and he wants to abolish the web browser back-button. If you're an enemy of the first and a fan of the second, you should be worried.

Expat Kiwi Richard Mander (pictured)was one of the few who liked Clippy the Windows office assistant, and he wants to abolish the web browser back-button.

If you’re an enemy of the first and a fan of the second, you should be worried: Mander advises vendors on interface design.

The back button becomes a crutch, he says. Web designers rely on it as an easy excuse for not putting more explicit navigation links and indicators on the site. “Back” in that context has a loose meaning dependent on browsing history, he notes, either to a page within a site or a different website entirely. Both options should be explicitly indicated.

Mander left New Zealand for Stanford University as a funded research assistant in 1987, “thinking I would become a developmental psychologist”. His interests moved from how people think and learn to how they use computers and other devices. He worked for Apple’s advanced technology group for seven years from 1990. His own company, Zanzara, now advises on interface design for vendors and user groups. During the first NZ Knowledge Wave conference he became involved with KEA (Kiwi Expats Association), which looks to bring New Zealanders and their knowledge back to their own country.

Several local companies have already welcomed his expertise. He expects to visit at least two or three more times during the rest of the year.

The user facing an unfamiliar system wants the answer to several standard questions, says Mander:

What is this thing I am looking at, and what can I do with it? Icons should be designed to give some clear indication of what sort of application or document they will give access to if clicked, just as buttons on a physical device should be appropriately captioned.

Web page text and graphics elements often give little indication of which are page links, which are application links, and which are inert. “You get people running their cursor over a page to see where it turns into a hand.” Complex processes should have an “inductive” communications style, the “wizard” type that leads you through step-by-step, rather than the still prevalent “deductive” style, “where you have to look at the available tools and deduce what you can do and how you do it”.

Where am I? A user should have a clear picture of their progress through a process, or their current location in a website map.

How do I get back to where I was before? “Press the back button” is not always the answer.

And, perhaps most crucially, when things go wrong:

How do I make it stop? For example, if you want to stop a print job, it should have minimal consequences in terms of requiring other stages of the process to be redone.

Simple pages in “good basic HTML” are not just for disabled users and those out in rural areas with slow links, he says.

“Some of the slow modem users might be the very people you most want to communicate with. Venture capitalists sometimes stay in hotel rooms, and it would be embarrassing to hear ‘we’re having second thoughts about financing your venture because your website [response time] sucks’.”

And Clippy? “I thought Clippy was useful,” Mander says. “I think people only hated him because it was so difficult to make him go away.”

Email Stephen Bell

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Tags interface design

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