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Saturday, July 9, 2005

Windows Media Player, or: Usability Going Down the Hill

Maybe I’m getting old: I got a feeling good usability standards for desktop software are going downhill. Probably, all good interface designers of today have left the desktop to take over the web. (This is not to say usability on the web is better, quite the opposite – there is much less standardization than on the desktop even – but that’s just the 80/20 rule of everything.)

The movie player back in the olden days (you could actually change the gray to any other color scheme).

Microsoft’s movie player in all its present day glory.

Let’s take, as an example, the Windows Media Player in its latest incarnation (that’s version 10 at the moment). After all, we know Microsoft is doing a lot of usability testing, and they have a lot of users, and the Media Player is an important software millions of users will be using. And it has been around for a while now, so we can be sure every new version is a refinement of the previous one in terms of features and usability. Or can we be sure?
I had my first encounter with it on Windows 95. Ironically, back then you could still open up multiple players with different videos. Today when you try to open a second video, the first already playing will be replaced. (Why would one want to watch two videos at the same time? Well, no one really wants that, I suppose; this is more of wanting to take a quick look at one video while not interrupting the longer other video that you were watching for half an hour already.)

Windows Media Player, probably partly in reaction to the fashion of skinning desktop software (customizing it with your own textures and icons), departs from standard desktop appearances and shows itself in smooth steel blue. This, of course, is the biggest usability sin here (because good usability is all about making the software do what the user expects, and there aren’t a lot of old expectations when the interface is totally new; the learning curve will be steep again). Windows already allows you to change colors of programs, the good thing being this user customization covers all desktop applications. Or at least, those that conform to the desktop standards.

Who said we needed another confusing design?

And the Player allows you to switch to other skins – and in doing so, you will find all buttons replaced, and you’ll be forced to learn how the interface works once more. Is that what users really want? I’m having a hard time even switching back to my previous skin which I at least partly understand; this is called mystery meat navigation because none of the buttons shows any text, nor is it really clear what the buttons represent. (But boy, are they beautifully beveled and all-smooth!)

Now I’m not against beautiful stuff, but I believe someone’s beautifying the wrong thing here: Windows Media Player first and foremost is a tool. We want to watch colorful stuff with it, but its own colorfulness would only distract from the actual video. People don’t make really colorful TVs and remove-controls either, and Windows Media Player acts as a TV.

Play is pause is play is pause... I can hear the sound of one hand clapping.

Another fashionable interface design the Media Player fell victim to is to make the play and pause button act as one. I don’t know who came up with this first, and why (probably to save space, and remove clutter), and when (probably very, very late at night). But this is a major annoyance because with a unified play/ pause button, you never really know what happens when you press it – will it play or pause? Does its “pause” icon mean it will be paused when you click on it, or that it currently is paused?

It’s especially bad because these days, users will stream their videos from the internet. Depending on the video size and connection, the user will first see a ghosted play button when the Media Player opens. Does that mean you need to click on it to make the video play? No – you need to wait for it to load. So what if you want to leave the room to wait while the video finishes loading, to then return later and play it? You’re out of luck, because the button is ghosted. Now, as soon as the movie plays, the “play” button will turn into a “pause” button. You’re also out of luck if you happen to press the play button exactly at the time when the button completely inverts it behavior. To give the Media Player some credit, the Quicktime player has the same problem, but it’s worse – the button is not even ghosted while the video’s buffering.

Another row of window icons?

But it doesn’t stop here, so let’s go to the next usability crime commited: there’s no menu! That’s right, the one thing pretty much any desktop software contains in order to let the user do stuff is missing. There’s just no dropdown menu on top. There’s just a bunch of buttons which fail to look like tabs (which they are).
Now wait... if you’re in maximized window mode, there’s a menu. And not just that – you now also find a second row of window icons on the top right. It contains the usual suspects minimize, normalize, and close. (It also sometimes contains another button with two arrows, which doesn’t do anything when you click on it, I believe.) But why would one need these two rows to change the window states? Typically, they’re only found in so-called MDIs (multi-document-interfaces, like photo retouching programs), but WMP after all is a SDI (single-document interface). In other words, having all of these icons twice is complete nonsense.

What’s even more annoying with the two rows of window buttons, other then them being nonsense, is that you’ll often find yourself closing a window behind the Media Player. Just try it: download a video, open it with a maximized Windows Explorer, and it might look like this if it’s normalized:

Whoopie! Guess what, if you press the X in the top right, you’ve closed Windows Explorer, but not the Media Player. Now the window position here is not artificially constructed, it’s actually a kind of default... and I find myself falling into this trap quite frequently. It’s small stuff like this which all-in-all adds up to the feeling of a really, really badly designed (or tested) program.

Yet another problem is the lack of consistency in the Media Player from one version to another. For example, the tabs like “Now playing” and “Library” were on the left in a previous version. This means loyal users will have to re-learn the program from scratch. Moving things from the left to the top or vice versa is a popular interface design choice, probably because both positions are OK. It’s just not OK to move, once you decided on one placement. (Did you notice the same thing happened with the most recent Firefox options dialog? As if browser options weren’t confusing enough already.)

Think you can resize the window? Think again (or rather, stop thinking – the WMP doesn’t reward it).

As a final nuisance (at least for this discussion, I’m sure there are at least a dozen more to find), take a look at the bottom-right “grip” icon. It’s intended to let you resize windows. But sometimes, it simply won’t work here! What happens? When you switch to maximized window mode, the “grip” icon and mouse cursor should disappear like they do in “normal” desktop application, because you can’t resize windows in maximized, full-screen mode (at least not Windows’ windows). The interface designers probably thought the grip icon was so good-looking, they wanted to keep it in even in maximized mode.


Is Microsoft with their Media Player alone in committing so many interface design crimes? I’m afraid not. Just thinking of other video players, like Quicktime, Real, or Winamp, will make you shiver if you’re into usability (or plain old common sense). But how important is it?
OK, for the sake of argument, let’s say there’s a million Windows Media Player users. They use the software every day for an average 5 minutes (they use it longer on some days, and some days not at all). That’s nearly 2 billion minutes a year, which are over 1 million days, which are (assuming people live an average of 70 years) over 17,000 life-times. In other words, some underpaid designer at Microsoft who wanted to give things a fresh look managed to ruin the lifes of tens of thousands of people!

But how important is it really? Who knows – if we would all design our software (and web sites, for that) with the best usability in mind (and it seems it’s little more than wanting to have the best usability, because many key issues are so obviously worse or better)... then we wouldn’t have to worry about this question in the first place. And don’t forget – as Joel Spolsky in User Interface Design for Programmers said: “Usability is not everything. If usability engineers designed a nightclub, it would be clean, quiet, brightly lit, with lots of places to sit down, plenty of bartenders, menus written in 19-point sans serif, and easy-to-find bathrooms. But nobody would be there. They would all be down the street at Coyote Ugly pouring beer on each other.”


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