Avoiding UX Train Wrecks

UX Train wreck culprits:

  • Rules and system logic: The system “works this way”, if you don’t get it, it’s your fault. 
  • Convoluted interfaces: Browse, click, hunt, click, think, click, think, browse, back up, think, click, find. 
  • Multiple or multi-faceted steps: First this then that, no not that- you made a mistake, yes that there, next this, you missed that, let’s go back before we move on. 
  • Conceptual model head-scratching: We built it with this concept, and we know how it works in our head, don’t you??
  • Buggy or broken flows (navigation): You have to go there, then there to get to it…sorry but it was easier to put it there. 
  • Complete lack of user empathy: Look, we didn’t have time to do user testing, Anyway we did try to think about you- but you weren’t in all our meetings so we may have missed a few things. 

Who makes the best train wreck interfaces in the world? The teams and companies that have a strong engineering culture either in the dev group or with management (or both). Creating elegant UX combines process, culture, and decision-making (Scroll to the end of this post if you are ready for the how-to).

UX guru Jared Spool recently said the higher the amount of contact with your users, the higher the software quality. Teams that let users and UX experts lead on interface design and usability enjoy more train and less wreck. 

Some UX Train Wrecks:


Even after a recent cold slap in the face “re-skinning” of the visual design, iTunes still totally sucks. Navigation is all over the place. Cover flow is gone, Playlists are moved out of the way, and sometimes accessing your device and/or Library is tricky depending on if your computer detects iTunes. 

iTunes is also ignorant of the multi-user experience or good luck trying to synch music on more than one computer: you’re “locked” to one account, and so is your music.

See the importance of Designing for Sociability

Amazon Cloud Player

This new MP3 download app replaces Amazon’s failed Digital Library from the last decade (a 25-step DRM process for getting a digital download). With the same panache, Amazon has created a complete train wreck: AMZ Cloud Player requires your anti-virus program to be disabled to use their software. This requires a call to their support to figure this out (seamlessly integrated into the error message). Next, downloading an album you buy on Amazon requires multiple steps, multiple confusions and another call to Support (unless you search your PC to find the music under My Music). There is no apparent way to download your music and get it out of the app (the whole point of the app as file delivery system). The UI tries to act like iTunes indexing ALL your music, but is so confusing, it’s not even funny. 

Google security

Google’s log-in process prohibits ‘password forget’ and instead uses a two-stage authentication (a code sent to your mobile phone). This requires password reset, which for me has been a regular occurrence lately (yep, I can’t remember the unique and super secure password they require). Worse, you can’t use passwords you may have used five years ago. It is all totally normal from a modern IT Security standpoint, but a complete train wreck for humans unable to remember passwords. Put back the password. Remember Google! Avoid the 5-step, ten-minute process just to log in. 

Microsoft Windows 8

Windows is releasing an update (8.1) to address the incessant complaints (read: train wreck) about its mobile-optimized tiled “metro” interface. There are a couple of train wreck issues with Metro (that’s the old name they don’t use anymore): 1) Microsoft does not own the mobile space, so optimizing the entire desktop experience for mobile does not make sense! 2) Making users look at all the tiles for teasers of an app or content item boggles the mind’s abilities–at least on large screen displays. As one user said to me recently, “On my large monitor, I am having to look here and there and everywhere for access to an app- it’s maddening!”

How to avoid UX Train Wrecks?

Starting at the design level, and moving up to the leadership level:

1. Make good design decisions: Make good decisions about your UX. How? We use intensive user researchuser testing and thinking like our users (empathy) as our main tools. Also, know when you are shooting from the hip. One of the things we teach in UX training is to be aware of the source of your decisions. Don’t assume you know how users will act if you don’t really know. Don’t reference decisions the team makes without double-checking.

2. Keep strong with UX activities: You’ve got to inject more “U” (user) into your efforts if you are claiming to look after UX. Spend time with your users. GOOB: Get out of the Building. Do user interviews do user testing. Do something that activates empathy with users. I’ll write in a later post about how this is your ultimate secret weapon to being a stellar UX designer.

3. Build UX culture: Customer-centric organizations are not a plaything of your CEO. Being user-centered doesn’t mean discussing users at the start of a meeting. Using the word user without ever having spoken to one this month (or ever at all) is a sign you need a mandate and a budget to do #2 above. UX maturity comes from cultural efforts. Agile or Lean UX can help.

See Lean UX process training

Alignment is Key

These efforts take time and need grassroots and executive support. Teams can not be expected to deliver quality software if they are not staffed, not budgeted, and not supported. Understand that elegant user experience comes from an alignment of the three factors above. 

If you’re having trouble getting through to your organization or to your boss, build a stronger case; get some training or bring in a hired gun. 

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