It might seem like a good idea to make your iPad work like a dumb terminal, but the novelty will soon wear off, says Nick Hampson. Last month, Nick examined the first two common modernisation bloopers. This month, he looks at the third—and it's a biggie.
It is always going to be tough to change the way you have been working for years, but my advice is to try to embrace new possibilities. The best systems I see are the product of people with a can-do attitude and an open-minded approach, and rarely the work of a modernization expert.
Recognize and accept that you have much to learn because with some training, a couple of good books and a little help from Google, you can go from zero to hero very quickly. Here are the common pitfalls of what I have come to call green-screen thinking:
OK, so listen to this scenario. I do something wrong on my application. As a response, the system reverse-highlights the function key area to tell me to press "F9=Errors". The issue is that "F9=Errors" is not actually shown on the screen at that point. Is this helpful or just confusing? That’s a real example from JD Edwards World of how not to provide an error message unless you also supply each user with a crystal ball.
So what do we do? Well, why not provide the message in a friendly sentence, free from technical terms and jargon, and avoid frustrating the user even more than they already are? If all else fails, a simple test is to show your message to a family member, your window cleaner or the old lady next door. If they ask you what language it’s in, delete it and start again.
I’m often asked if we can configure the keyboard to work like Client Access. We can, but isn't modernizing your application supposed to make it more intuitive and familiar to today’s user? The principle is to enable users to work as quickly as possible by embracing the power of the modern device or platform they are using.
Making users memorize function keys or keyboard maps defeats the purpose of building applications that leverage the latest technology. It may seem like a good idea to make your iPad work like a dumb terminal, but the novelty will soon wear off and you’ll be left with a mediocre application that could have delivered so much more.
Technical info on screens –You know the stuff: date, time, virtual device ID, program name. In UI terms, it is sometimes referred to as computer administrative debris. Let’s just call it what it is: technical junk! For most of a user’s working life, this is clutter that makes the screen look nasty, creates delays in accessing useful info and, even when required, is not presented in a format that’s particularly intelligible.
Your PC, Mac, tablet or phone has a clock and it works fine – so let’s lose the one that clutters every screen of your application. Similarly, users don't meet up at lunch talking about how they got QPADEV0001T this morning. I'm not saying it’s never required, but let’s ensure that when the user does need to see it, it is presented to them in a nice clean format and probably e-mailed to support too. The modern way would be a simple pop-up box showing a description and the required detail along with the number to call plus an option to mail it to support.
I raised this in last month's installment, but it is such a common mistake that I’m including it here too. People use fixed fonts (like Courier) to make the screens look familiar but, as I’ve already stressed, the whole point of modernization is to make the application better. Proportional fonts (like Arial) are easier to read, look modern and let you fit more data on the screen. No modern app, desktop, web or mobile uses fixed fonts, so what’s your excuse?
Using midrange taste instead of GUI standards. This is the personal preference versus well-thought-out standards exercise. It is surprising how often people say: "I don't like...", be it radio buttons or any other style control or color. You should not be picking items based on personal preference; you should be building your application on standards that have been created by UI experts following much research and testing.
It’s fine for you to dislike an item or control. However, this is just your opinion. If you are going to deviate from recognized UI standards, you surely need a better reason than "it’s not my cup of tea"? Standards are there for good reasons and they enable us all to create effective interfaces without reinventing the research and design wheel.
On this note, I’d like to recommend Designing The Obvious by Robert Hoekman as a great place to start with understanding modern design. It’s an easy read, and great for the beginner. For your diehard UI expert seeking the nth level of detail, About Face by Alan Cooper may be a more suitable, if more complex, read.
If all else fails, look at some well-built apps and how they implement and follow standards. Google Apps are pretty good, while Microsoft Outlook has been designed to incorporate most modern controls and is well constructed as a UI.
One final comment; web pages are not web apps. Pages and apps by nature work differently, so copying a website is not generally a good starting point for your web application.
Nick Hampson has been modernizing IBM i applications for over 15 years, specializing in creating quality users experiences. Designing for desktop, web, tablet and smartphone, Nick works with customers to increase the reach, integration and business value of their existing IBM i applications. Nick speaks world-wide for looksoftware at a variety of events including COMMON, NiSUG and lookahead. You can read his blog,'UI, UX, You what?" at http://www.looksoftware.com/blog/nick.aspx#.UaiXOaLVCVU.