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Scaling Mount Everest: Redesigning Netmeeting

In our previous UIB&A we redesigned the wording on some buttons, a mere "walk in the park" compared to today's foray into the wacky world of Microsoft Netmeeting. By comparison, this one will be like scaling Mount Everest. I got into this expedition when I recently bought some webcams to hook up both sets of grandparents for my kids. I realize now that the marketing guys are asleep at the wheel... these things should be called grandpa-cams.


Here's the out-of-the-box interface, with the nearly insane new user.

Anyway, this one brings up the issue of relativity: nowhere are things more relative than when evaluating ease-of-use with computers... it's relative to your experience. In my Netmeeting trials-and-tribulations, I was talking my father-in-law through the install. He is a non-Windows user, meaning he bought a Windows box just a year ago and can barely distinguish when it is turned on. Or let me state it in positive terms: he's a competent AOL user. Can't fully grasp the situation? Try this: at 10 o'clock one night we were working on an unrelated problem and I suggested we solve it by e-mailing a particular brick-and-mortar business. He replied, "Why e-mail them now, they're not open."

I on the other hand have 18 years of quasi-development experience, have coded assembler by hand (yes, 128, 64, 106, 109, 22 and like that), and can solve cryptograms without a writing implement, yet I too found Netmeeting incredibly frustrating. Talking "dad" through to the summit was like Abbott & Costello's immortal "Who's on First." Struggling to connect voice and video with Bill Gates' version of a cup and strings, Netmeeting takes the expression "blind-leading-the-blind" and quite literally ratchets it up a level to "deaf-dumb-and-blind in bumper cars":

Me: "Do you see the [unlabeled] button with the picture of the book?"
Dad: "On the computer?"
Me: "Yes, on the Netmeeting window."
Dad: "All I see is Find Someone."
Me: "Drag that Window out of the way."
Dad: "I can't move it, it's too big."
Me: "Can you minimize it? Do you see the three buttons that look like a dash a box, and an X?"
Dad: "You mean the negative sign? I don't see the X."
(... repeat for two hours)

You understand our challenge now, to make Netmeeting communicable. We won't try to tackle the whole job, just two main aspects: the startup tasks for first-time users and simple wording on the buttons and menus.

Examining the "Before" Dialog

Notice in the original dialog, the buttons have no labels. (Although MS provides tool-tip labels, also called 'hover' caption or bubble help, they are of virtually no use when helping a naive user.) Not only are the buttons themselves unlabeled, but they are in groups that are also unidentified. The avoidance of labels is an attempt save space and perhaps address non-English users.

This interface is designed---optimized---for the user who already knows how to use it. Its small visual "footprint" is intended to serve those who have it working fine and are now concentrating on the remainder of their Windows desktop, where they are perhaps "sharing" a software application with their Netmeeting conversationalists. These are all excellent values ONCE YOU HAVE IT RUNNING. The man pulling his hair out would love to know how many have gotten it running as easily as they should.


I'm still working on this one. Stay tuned.


"My interest in usability arose from the pain and tears of patching the wounds of suffering interface designs with the inadequate bandages of help files and user guides." — Daniel Cohen

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