Friday, February 15, 2008

Is Firefox 3 User-Friendly?

In a recent blog post, Firefox 3 UI designer Alex Faaborg revealed the latest designs for the Firefox 3 icons. While I suppose they're pretty enough, I'm not entirely sold on the user interface design.

Firefox 3's interface departs from the traditional Firefox interface in several small but significant ways, and not, in my opinion, for the better.

For one thing, they are using a keyhole design for the Forward and Back buttons. Is the Back button really so much more important than the Forward button that it deserves to be almost twice as large? I'm not sot sure. I'm also concerned about the history menu button. The new history menu button, located to the right of the small Forward button, looks like it's already depressed, which breaks a fairly basic rule of UI design: if something is clickable, make it look clickable. It also seems like the Forward and Back history menu buttons have been consolidated into this single menu button, which is bound to be confusing for many users. If I want to go three pages back, why do I click the small button (which already looks clicked) next to the Forward button?

I also question the logic behind moving the Home button from the Navigation bar to the Bookmarks toolbar. I don't think most people think of their Homepage as a glorified bookmark. I personally consider it more as a starting point for browsing — an actual "home" page. I use Google for my homepage (which I think is a fairly common choice), and so I use the Home button fairly often. I also don't use the Bookmarks toolbar, since I would rather use the extra real estate for the web page. For me — and, I think, for many other people as well — the Home button is conceptually better suited for the Navigation bar. If it is relegated to the Bookmarks, why have a separate "home" bookmark at all?

If the Firefox 3 team is so concerned about conserving space — which is the only reason I can think of for using the crowded keyhole configuration for the navigation buttons and for moving the Home button off of the Navigation bar — then a better solution would be to consolidate the Stop and Reload buttons. You can't Stop a page that has already loaded, and it's only logical that to Reload a page that you'd have to Stop if from loading first. Consolidating the Stop and Reload buttons based on the current status of the page just makes sense... but it could also improve usability, which I doubt is true of the design choices being made by the Firefox 3 team. By swapping the Stop and Reload buttons depending on the status of the page, the browser provides additional feedback to the user, and prevents the user from taking counter-productive actions such as frantically clicking the Reload button in a futile attempt to make a page load faster — a mistake commonly made by inexperienced Web users.

I suspect the Firefox 3 team might be falling into the same trap made by other software designers, and are trying to make their product look like other similar products on the market so that their product looks new and modern. The problem is that in doing that, you're assuming that the original product has a well-designed user interface. Otherwise, you're simply copying others' mistakes. Firefox 3 unfortunately looks quite a bit like IE7, which is only good for IE7 users who move to Firefox. The changes to the IE7 interface don't necessarily add to the user experience, and neither will those changes being made for the Firefox 3 interface. The Firefox 3 team needs to focus more on the usability rather than the aesthetics of the interface.

On the other hand, we can always install custom themes. It's just a shame if we feel like we need to do so to overcome the poor design of the default interface.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Hybrids, shmybrids...

So I'm watching the Superbowl — more for the commercials than for the game — and I see a commercial praising the virtues of the GMC Yukon hybrid. Wow. For an extra $20,000, you can get 21 mpg in the city instead of 14 mpg. I can't express how frustratingly idiotic that is.

All of the Presidential candidates have been talking about "energy independence" and a few have actually mentioned alternative energy sources. And hybrids are a step in the right direction. I have one myself — a Honda Insight, which I absolutely love, and which gets about 50 mpg — but they are only a band-aid solution. Yet automobile manufacturers by and large seem to be focused on producing hybrids to the exclusion of other, better, solutions. Now we have a hybrid Yukon. What's next, hybrid school buses? Hybrid dump trucks? The usefulness of a hybrid vehicle is completely lost on large, heavy gas-guzzlers. A hybrid Yukon is little more than a balm to the egos of wealthy idiots who don't really care about the environment but feel that they should. So now they can drive their huge SUV beast and still brag to their wealthy idiot friends that they care about the environment because they drive a hybrid, even though they could do better by driving a non-hybrid minivan or sedan.

If we want to really help the environment, and truly become energy independent, we as a society need to demand that auto makers seriously devote themselves to the development of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, grid-powered electric vehicles, as well as the infrastructure to support them. We need more and better public transportation (even — or especially — if it is actually produced by the private sector), and we as a society need to actually utilize it.

And we need to realize how dumb the idea of a hybrid Yukon really is.