Cupertino, we have a problem.
Q: How do you know when your software has a usability problem?
A: When someone creates an entire humor site dedicated to mocking it.
Okay, you might have said something involving reports from the usability testing, or maybe even some axiomatic list of UX smells. However, if you ever find that a piece of software you wrote has inspired an entire new category of parodic humor, there just might be a problem.
How has it come to this?
The emergence of this UX gaffe leaves me incredulous for a number of reasons. First, one of the biggest offending implementations is baked into iOS, a product of a company that gets a lot of respect for designing great interfaces. Secondly, and more importantly, most of the Mobile OS platforms with this issue have gone through several major upgrades and not fixed the problem despite all the bad press about it.
What’s the Problem?
So to reel this conversation back in, and make it instructional and not just another ranting voice on the Internet that the developers of this software will ignore, let’s talk about what it is about the auto-correct feature on your cell phone that makes it such a usability disaster.
The core problem is that it violates the usability principle that the user should always feel like they are in control of the software.
The users of your software should be the drivers, not the passengers. Ask Toyota how their ‘users’ felt about their products deciding independently that more speed might be nice .
If you are going to make your spelling checker jump in and autonomously decide it knows what the typist meant to say, it had better be right 100% of the time. Is that bar too high? Well then stop making your app take over the controls. A well behaved app is heard and not stomping all over my carefully written prose and/or review of the wing place where I am currently receiving inferior service.
Not only does this implementation of auto-correct make the user feel impotent, it also violates the usability commandment that the user’s input is sacred. Violations of this principle contribute mightily to the computer-phobic person’s notion that the machine is going all SkyNet on them.
Extra Credit: Why do you think applications like MS Office that move your menu items around by usage frequency so infuriating? How about browser pop-ups?
Reinventing the Wheel – Let’s try square this time!
This would all be more excusable if a perfectly user-friendly auto-correct interface didn’t already exist. What’s more aggravating is that the existing workable system is so close to the new broken version that it is inconceivable that the designers of the new version weren’t familiar with the existing one.
Consider for a moment how auto-correct is implemented in MS Office, Blackberry OS, and the Firefox spell-checker. In almost identical fashion it gives you a list of suggested alternatives for the suspected misspelled word. The key difference is that it SUGGESTS, but doesn’t CORRECT the user’s text unless the user takes affirmative action. This puts the user fully in control of the system, which makes them happy. Sure some typos may slip by the user, but if you are giving good enough visual indicators that should be minimized.
Is Anyone Listening?
Perhaps I’ve completely missed the point here, and there is a good reason why something that was routine on my old Blackberry is nigh impossible on the other smart phone platforms. If you have any inside scoop, or just have a convincing theory to share I’d love to hear about it in the comments. If you just want to complain about it, that’s fine too, maybe we can make this square wheel squeaky enough to get some satisfaction.