Over Messaging the User Experience

Jeff Sauro, PhD

Alert: Are you sure you want to proceed?

In his seminal book, The Humane Interface, the late Jef Raskin, one of the original Apple Designers, described inefficient interfaces as those that required user input but provided nothing in return.

He provided as an example a Mac dialogue box from over 12 years ago (shown below) which had an efficiency rating of 0 (effort in and nothing out).

While the look of our interfaces has changed over the years, the seeming constant demand to respond to dialogue boxes and information alerts hasn’t.

Here is a message I receive quite a bit while reading emails in Outlook that also achieves Raskin’s dubious efficiency rating of 0:

A dialogue box can still provide a choice but be both burdensome and inefficient. Also in Outlook is the follow message I receive when I’ve turned on images to read an email but close the message:

Like a game of whack-a-mole, when I go to close Outlook I’m often dismissing 3 to 5 of these.

Here are the three screens I received when saving a Photoshop file as a PDF.

Alert Apathy

There are certain things that we need to be alerted to and take action (many of which seem to stem from legal or security reasons). But the problem is, with so much demand for our attention, we start to become numb to the messages. The length and abundance of these messages create a certain alert apathy.

These pesky queries are now ubiquitous and show up not just on our desktop computer but in our mobile phones, TV’s, DVDs, DVRs and cars.

Like the boy who cried wolf, after a while we stop paying attention to what they say and when we really need to understand them the most, we’re least receptive.

The message below came up a few minutes into a DVD we were watching. We received an alert (with no way to dismiss) to upgrade our software.

And then while watching Netflix we got this one:

And on DirecTV…during the US Open.

This is probably one of the worst ones. Not sure how important it is to have my guide data updated at least every hour. This message might as well say: “Alert: We are blocking your picture so you have to find the remote and dismiss it.”

Here’s an alert that now pops up on occasion in our car telling us the SOS calling feature isn’t working. Want to talk about distracted driving? Having to find the right key sequence to dismiss this message to see the more relevant information is both tricky and ironic.

There are ways of alerting users without completing annoying them. Raskin recommended a transparent error message that didn’t require input and didn’t obfuscate the screen. There’s also the “Don’t show again” dialogue box option as seen in the Photoshop example above. Of course, if you never see it again, it’s like the boy who never cried wolf—same result.

It seems that whenever I give a presentation, one of these dialogue boxes pops up. At the UxPA conference last month I was blessed with TWO messages in 15 minutes (much to the amusement of the audience). One telling me my files were backed up and another from Apple telling me I need to upgrade (all on top of a power-point presentation).

While there certainly can be friendlier ways of alerting users, it’s less about how the message is displayed but the fact that it is displayed. In the end it’s finding ways of having fewer messages, with less content, less often. And when in doubt, a bit of testing with users will go a long way toward identifying when you need to alert us and force us to acknowledge those alerts.

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