Lewis' Blog Tales from the trenches of information technology


The importance of Common User Access design guidelines in 2018

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Apparently, a poorly designed user interface was at least partially to blame for last weekend's terrifying missile notification mishap in Hawaii. I've had my share of dealings with less than adequate user interfaces, including the tax preparation software we are currently using, which takes me much more time to do my work than our previous software (though a fraction of the cost). Unfortunately, lousy user interface design seems to be the norm with most Windows software (and a goodly amount of Linux software, as well).

According to at least one source, "[t]he two options were labelled almost identically ('test missile alert' and 'missile alert') and placed one after another, while the only safeguard to prevent accidental alert launches was a single confirmation prompt." Huh?

ArcaOS, on the other hand, inherits a pedigree of excellent user interface design from its OS/2 roots. First published in 1987, IBM developed guidelines for what it termed Common User Access, later codified in the 1991 revision as CUA '91, and used extemsively throughout IBM's operating system family, including OS/2.

While I am by no means an expert in this fascinating field (especially fascinating for the more retentive - or OCD - among us), I am constantly amazed by the incredible grace and usability brought to even the simplest of graphical applications by the use of standard, common sense layouts and a modicum of organization.

There should be, for example, good reason for the size and placement of buttons on the screen (either next to each other or on opposite sides of a particular area). There should be consistent logic to the naming of buttons and menu selections, the ordering of menu options, and even different fonts utilized in the interface (some to highlight important terms, some to provide background information wihtout requiring another button press, instead remaining on-screen, yet unobtrusive to the function of the panel itself). There is so much more to making effective user interfaces to suit humans and our expectations.

ArcaOS embodies these principles. Nearly every application shipped with the operating system (and in fact, available for OS/2 and thus, ArcaOS) has been written to respect these guidelines. Thus, there is a flowing consistency to the menus, buttons, and dialogs of ArcaOS and the software it runs. In addition, a disk wipe, for example (a critical procedure) is met with a countdown timer, followed by a confirmation and another longer countdown, with a Cancel button clearly available. Such a simple approach might have helped avert the debacle of last weekend.

I don't know what software is actually used for the Hawaii emergency notification system, nor do I know on what platform it runs. I do know that I have on hand at least a dozen examples of poor Windows user interfaces (chief among them the aforementioned tax preparation software, with no thought as to consistency or usability, with menu choices literally bolted onto one another, and popup windows galore, each of a different size and different layout, some with checkboxes, still others with conflicting checkboxes, and so much more). [Edit: Looks like it is most likely Windows, based upon this report.]

If you haven't seen OS/2 in a while, you might want to take a look at ArcaOS. It doesn't phone home to the Mother Ship every time it boots (or even while running - imagine that), it doesn't require constant security updates which seem to break more things than they fix each time, and unlike Linux desktop environments, the desktop interface (the Workplace Shell) is clean, organized, and logical. Oh, and did I mention that so far, we haven't found any Spectre or Meltdown exploits against it? (Even the Firefox browser uses sufficient granularity in its high resolution timer implementation for JavaScript that Meltdown attacks via the browser won't work.)

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