Google – Another step backward for UI design?

It really doesn’t feel like much time has passed since Google launched the “black bar” to navigate around Docs/Calendars/other services.  And over time, many of us have come to rely on it being there.

Roll on another (wow, it’s been a couple of years already?) couple of years, and now we get this:

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Yup. That’s a grid, buried among a couple other things that rarely get used.  Click on it, and a list of icons appears to help take you to your chosen service. All well and good, except you have to click again to go there.

Those of us relying on pattern or muscle-memory to get things done intuitively will balk at this for a few reasons:

  1. We now need to click twice to get a simple thing done.  Surely activation by hovering over the grid should bring up the menu?
  2. The grid is in no way intuitive – looking at the icon doesn’t tell me anything meaningful about what it’s going to do if I click on it.
  3. The grid is in a completely different place on the page from where the old navigation bar was

A little car analogy:  I need to know that when I take my car for its annual service, it comes back with key consumables replaced under the hood, but with key controls (gas and brakes for example) in the same place as when I took it there, each retaining the same function as when I left the car at the garage.  I don’t want to have to relearn where the pedals are, and what each does, every time I head off on a new journey.  Likewise with software.  Changes and improvements are a good thing.  But only when managed in a way that allows the majority to keep up, or to operate the machinery safely in the way they were first trained to when taking on the machine.

It’s the small things like this (and Ars Technica has an interesting article listing similar things here) which are turning many of my tech-embracing friends and relatives back away from the tech they purchased, because they don’t yet use it enough to learn how to relearn pretty much every task they ever set out to achieve.  Many of them might only perform a task once every year or two, yet every time they do, enough little things have changed that mean they’re relearning the process as a new user.

I think that’s a clear example of technology creating more stress, and more hassle – far from the technology enabling things through reducing effort and overheads.

Am I the only one thinking this way?

HMV: End of an era?

The news that HMV is calling for administrators is hardly a surprise. As with Comet and Jessops, the question in my mind is “What took so long?”

It’s a cruel irony that I’ve seen some significant improvements to their London Oxford Street and Piccadilly stores in the last few months, especially in vinyl stocks. But that doesn’t really offset the issues I’ve been having with them lately. For incidence – none of the stores seem to have put much effort into being places that anyone would want to spend time in. The constant drone of over-loud pap-Muzak pervaded the entire experience, often distracting from what I wanted to buy. The vinyl sections up until a year ago were badly kept, with old bent/warped stock that was in a perpetual state of disordered chaos. This got better in the last few months at the Piccadilly store, but still wasn’t great.

Even finding CD’s was a chore, at Christmas time in the Westfield Stratford branch I was unable to find anything from the shopping-list of well-known artists we had compiled, except for Susan Boyle’s latest. The cheaply-published and packaged best-of’s offered for remaining artists on the list were hardly good gifts and often didn’t actually contain the ‘best’ of said artists’ output. DVD’s and BluRays were easier to find once I could navigate the crowds, but again I only had a 50% hit-rate. The eye-watering queues at the tills also didn’t help, especially for what should have been quick lunchtime purchases!

For me and my household, despite (always) being on a budget, price doesn’t have to rule the spending decision. Part of the fun of building our music and movie collection has been the voyage of discovery, and the sense of a good shopping experience. If the in-store experience is bad or even just merely indifferent, then that infringes on my perceived quality of the product. If the store doesn’t care about its contents, then why should I, unless I really know something they don’t? Certainly in that case I won’t order online from the same store – likely I won’t order anywhere at all until I find a store that does have it, and cares about it. In short – we tend to buy what we are looking for, or discover on the way – not always the cheapest, and rarely online.

An interesting angle on this was found when I took on the project to upgrade my grandparents’ tape collection to CD. Their collection has a surprising number of quality albums from the 80’s and 90’s, none of which I was able to find on CD in the high-street, HMV included. Given the amount of work involved in converting a number of old tapes to CD, restoring them to “like-new” quality levels associated with CD on the way so that the transition is an improvement as much as a necessity, it is usually far easier and more cost-effective to replace with store-bought new copies. The artists get more royalties, the stores get more sales, and I save myself hundreds of pounds in time, software and electricity doing the conversions myself – that’s a win-win situation! This ‘shopping-list’ style of shopping lends itself best to online retailers now – but even online only about 75% of the content is available, and I’d rather support high-street stores where I can actually physically browse, interact with staff, etc etc. In other areas of life I’ve had fabulous conversations with staff and patrons, even leading to increased sales (“hey, you’re looking for Curved Air, right? i just found some over here!”) and offers of real work. That won’t happen if I buy my music on Amazon!

Another negative experience, and one that pervades all the ‘big’ electronics/media stores I’ve encountered recently, is that there’s no real try-before-you-buy facility, especially on things like headphones and media players. Where such facilities are offered, staff tend to be rushed and pushy, and the range of equipment available for real-world comparison is usually much smaller than that available for sale in-store. Where kit is available for demonstration it’s broken, or priced at such a premium level that I couldn’t afford it even if it were the right thing – many “Beats” or “Bose” headphones for example are easily outperformed by (sometimes significantly) cheaper competition, but with no way to test this there’s no way for the consumer to sort the genuine star-players from the dross.

Seems to me that a lesson being missed here, and one that seems to be in common with Comet, Jessops and HMV, is that there’s a level of basic sales service, and customer experience, that is being missed. Sure, the economic situation isn’t helping. Sure, online sales are taking their toll. But the stores I choose to frequent for such things, especially music, are those like Sister Ray and Music and Video Exchange in Soho, where passion, care and above all, content, are king.

If HMV passes, that leaves small independents a niche. If they (and we as consumers) can exploit that, it could be a very good thing for the music industry as a whole. If they don’t, then physical music purchases will likely become a niche, and consumer electronics will likely follow behind, beyond what the marketeers can tell us all we should be buying next. Sad times. I enjoyed the variety and excitement in these markets in the 80’s and 90’s, and I’ll miss them now they’re all but gone.