Monday, February 5, 2007

Another Application that Just Works, At Least To A Point

I said in my book that this blog would contain a Hall of Shame for bad applications. After further reflection, I think that it's more useful to praise good applications rather than only slam bad ones. At the very least, I'll make sure to show a good application alongside every bad application. And today I'll show a good app without a bad one for contrast.

Microsoft's Movie Maker application, which comes with Windows XP, gets lambasted in critical circles for its inability to do this or that complex but (to the reviewer) necessary task in piecing together a movie. Without considering its ability to do large and complex things, I am going to pat its designers on the head for making the simple operation of getting video from a camera onto your computer about as quick and easy as it can be.

Like every proud daddy in the world, I've been recording my two daughters' milestone events on video, such as Annabelle singing in her Kindermusik chorus or Lucy ice skating by herself for the first time. (Don't worry, I won't inflict them on you.) But my parents live a few hundred miles away from me, and naturally they love to watch their only two grandchildren growing up. I'd like to send them the video electronically which means first capturing it onto a PC.

I sat down one Saturday morning to do this for the first time, cringing mentally at the pain I expected to suffer from bad applications. I don't get to say this very often, but I was pleasantly surprised by how quick and easy it was, because Microsoft Movie Maker more or less Just Worked for this particular application, figuring out about what I wanted to do and doing it for me.

I plugged my camcorder into the PC using a USB cable, wondering which of the dozens of applications on my PC would get this done. XP's plug-and-play mechanism detected the camcorder, realized that plugging one in meant that the user almost certainly wanted to download video, knew which application worked with it, and popped up the following box, which saved me any amount of poking around:

A hard-core developer would no doubt say, "Platt, you dimwit, if you don't know which application you want to use, go back to playing Solitaire, if you can remember it, or better yet use your PC for a boat anchor before you hurt someone." But that's 100% ass backwards. It's not the user's job to know about the developer's application; it's the developer's job to know about the user's needs and wants. It's very hard for a developer to get that through his head, since he spends all day every day working on his application. But the user doesn't care whether his electric drill comes from Makita or Sears or Black and Decker. He only cares how fast and how well and how easily it makes holes, which are the true object of his efforts. I used my computer not because I wanted to capture video, and neither does one single person in the entire world. I wanted to HAVE CAPTURED video. And the sooner I get to that state, with the least amount of effort, the happier I and any user will be.

OK, video capture is what I want. Click OK. Next it asked me which camera, because it also saw the tiny webcam that I use for instant messenger, which sits on my PC all the time. This question was probably unnecessary, seeing as I had just plugged one of them in, the detection of which caused the wizard to start. But the new one was selected as the default option, so one click got me past it.

Next the wizard offered me the choice of where to put the captured video. A good default folder was selected, and decent default title provided. The title's text was even selected so that all I had to do was to start typing to change the name, I didn't have to click on the text box and select the text. That's about as easy as it gets.

The video settings page was next. This could get tricky, if the user had to think about technical options, but again, the wizard designers had abstracted the choices away. The options were clearly explained in non-technical language for users who had never seen them before (as I had not), and the correct choice for most users was selected as a default. Specifically, the explanation was written in terms of what the USER wanted to do, keep it on a computer or copy it back to a tape. Links to additional information were available to an advanced user, or one of the few who was interested in the capture process, but it didn't get in the way of the vast majority of us who just wanted to get the damn thing done so we could get on with something we really cared about, like watching Mighty Mouse ("Heeere I come, to save the d-a-a-y!"). A simple click on Next gave me the right settings.

The next wizard page asked which parts of the tape did I want, all or some? Again, no problem understanding what they were asking. Since I only wanted a part, I selected that.

Finally, up came the capture box. Then there was the box saying start, stop, with video controls. Again, the choices were well laid out. Step 1, click Start. Step 2, click Stop. Step 3, repeat steps 1 and 2 until finished. Easy. (OK, I'll inflict just one snapshot on you. Aren't they cute?)

The only piece that I didn't care for was the "Create clips when Wizard finishes" box. I didn't want to do anything else with the video, just email it. So this sent me into an editor which I had to cancel out of. (I think that's the editor that the critics don't like). All I cared about was the file that it wrote on the disk up to this point.

Lessons for designers from this simple interaction:

1. Your user doesn’t care about your application, often to the point of not even knowing the name of it. Never has, never will. It's your job to care about him anyway.

2. The items on the wizard pages were logically grouped, for example, information about the input device was on one page and information about the output file was on a separate one, even though that wasted space. The user had to deal with just one thought on any given page, he never had too many things to juggle.

3. The default options were logical. They picked what most users wanted most of the times. The meanings of the selections were clearly explained.

Lessons for users from this simple interaction: good, simple, easy-to-use software is possible, and at least sometimes does exist. Demand it. Use it when you find it. Don't settle for less.

I do not know how good or how bad a job Movie Maker does at the rest of its tasks. But at this simple task, it did an excellent job of Just Working. As Donald Norman wrote in The Design of Everyday Things: "… the next time you pick up an unfamiliar object and use it smoothly and effortlessly on the first try, stop and examine it: the ease of use did not come about by accident. Someone designed the object carefully and well." That's right. They made it Just Work.


Unknown said...

It's good that Microsoft can finally here about something going right. I teach IT at a high school and we look at Human Computer Interface design (HCI) - and this article is a fantastic example of how to look at something and appreciate it for its simplicity. Well done!

Elder Norm said...

I am glad to hear that MS got an application right. :-)

I have to wonder, did you use it in XP or in VISTA?

And if its VISTA, I hear that HD messes everyting up due to DRM. Any input?

Elder Norm

Blaine said...

No editing? That doesn't test the capability of Windows Movie Maker.

However, I think the Digital Media group at Microsoft has done a good job with Windows Movie Maker in the past.

I'd be interested in your opinion of the new "Windows Live Movie Maker" which is part of the "Live Essentials" download.

It's dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, so you'll probably love it. Many users of the former versions hate it though for exactly this reason. Take a look.