The Good and the Bad: a UX Roundup

The Good: Read It Later (for iOS)

Read It Later is an app that allows a user to time shift article reading by queuing articles or web pages for storage in a local repository that can then be read at a later time. Articles can be added to the queue from various browsers or Twitter clients; thereafter, the user syncs the mobile client to the RIL server and downloads the bookmarked stories locally. This way, a user can read a story on a mobile device even if no internet connection is available. Additional features available include a “digest,” which creates a magazine-style index of saved articles organized by topic, and article tagging (similar to Delicious) to populate filtered or search views.

In the default list mode, RIL presents a simple ordered list of headlines with the most recently added item appearing at the top. Each row is wide and tall enough to display the source website and a full headline and can be easily selected by the user with a short tap. Easily selected icons populating a top row allow the user to switch views, but for most article reading, the List view is more than adequate and more advanced functions don’t clutter the view.

That said, more advanced features such as article tagging are readily accessible. Swiping the article headline reveals another set of icons that facilitate tagging, categorization for Digest viewing, changing stories to “read” status, and more. For more casual browsing, the Digest view arranges articles in a two-column grid featuring column-wide images, headlines, and sub-leads. With each of these views, the user has numerous ways of navigating thru a document collection.

Lots of smaller touches are also addressed in RIL including:

  • Rotation lock to prevent the display from switching from landscape to portrait or vice versa;
  • One touch-control to lower brightness (for reading in low light conditions, i.e., in bed);
  • Progress bars and animations that provide user feedback during time-consuming actions like article sync;
  • Auto-login for password protected sites like WSJ and NYT; and
  • Reformatting of multi-page articles as one page, eliminating additional load times.

A lot of this complexity lives under the hood and need not be provisioned or used without loss of core functionality. Updates to the app occur infrequently, but when they do, significant features make it worthwhile.

English: Skype on mac that is version 5.1.0.935

Image via Wikipedia

The Bad: Skype (Mac OSX Client)

My least favorite aspect of the Skype client involves chat notifications. When a user receives an incoming chat, a greyed out number appears in the Chat/Call Log pane of the main window next to a small silhouette icon. This “update” provides the only link to the appropriate chat window. Clicking or highlighting the name of the contact in the main Skype window provides no link or functionality for displaying the live chat or responding in kind. A dialogue bubble next to the contact’s name likewise takes one to an archive of conversations but no live chat window. Another smaller window entitled Online Contacts similarly provides no way of directly communicating with a Contact; clicking on a contact name there only reopens the main window. All of this has the effect of confusing the user when a chat message is received, recreating the experience of looking for a phone when it’s ringing. Pleasant? Not so much.

Luckily, answering or initiating a phone call is slightly more intuitive–this view takes over the entire window regardless of whether the call is accepted or rejected. The red- and green-colored phone icons with the contact’s image thumbnail provide much clearer direction but rows of smaller icons are less obvious. Resizing buttons that restore parts of the original window are available but easy to overlook.

In recent months, numerous upgrades have been pushed to users of Skype’s Mac OSX client. Sadly, while these pushes have been frequent (and time-consuming since they require a restart), no visible improvements have appeared in the UI. In fact, nothing of significance seems to have changed at all since there are no notes or comments accompanying each upgrade.

Often when initiating a Skype call, I’ve encountered audio issues with my mic or someone else’s mic. (I’ve learned to turn off the webcam to avoid bandwidth and other issues.) What follows is a frantic settings check that usually requires a dive into the System and Skype prefs as well as a restart of the Skype client. If there were a way to visibly indicate a live audio connection from a user, much confusion would be avoided. Likewise, level checks or settings that conformed with the last session would be greatly helpful. Given the number of IM clients out there (Y!, AIM, ICQ, Meebo, Facebook, etc.), it’s odd that Skype has chosen its own conventions, behaviors, and cluttered interface.

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