pixel is in Charge

03.07.2016   15:36

Backend Developers are Great at UX

That's kind of a provocative title, so let me just get this out of the way: No, no they are not. And I am not crazy enough to attempt to convince you otherwise. That said, they aren't nearly as bad as they're given credit for.

Let's do this by way of example. Suppose you have a list, and users need to be able to sort it, alter the items in the list, and delete items. All your front-end developers are busy, and so are the UX people, so it's up to that backend developer to bang something out. What are they going to give you? Something, I suspect, an awful lot like this:

Sort Item Delete?

In other words, a <table> that closely mimics the underlying database structure. Yeah, I can hear the internal screams of the UX people from here. But let's consider this for a moment. Is this going to be fun to use? No. Definitely not. But in its straightforward simplicity, it gives us something that's kind of amazing: anybody can use this form. No matter how spotty your network connectivity, if you managed to load this form, you can submit it. If all you have is a text-only browser, you can use this form. No mouse? That's okay, this form is keyboard-accessible. Do you interact with your computer via voice command? This form will be serviceable.

For the vast majority of your users, this is not great UX. But it is Universal UX. Anybody―everybody―can use it! The web is universally accessible by default, and by staying away from the fancy stuff, by building something that would be at home in 1994, our backend developer managed to preserve that.

We definitely don't want to stop here, but it's a pretty great jumping-off point. So let's put our UX hat on and start making some improvements.

Sort Item Delete?

Some quick wins are simply to adjust the sort values to make rearranging easier, and adjusting the text of the button. Not terribly complicated, even the backend developer can manage it.

Sort Item Delete?

But of course, manually entering the sort weight is awful, so maybe we add some buttons to adjust the list sorting, so users can click a button, rather than type in sort values, and hide the numeric input with a little CSS. We'll leave it in the DOM both for text-only browsers, and to give a place for our buttons to store the sort order (assuming they function via JavaScript).

Sort Item Delete?

And as we get fancier, maybe we dim or strike-through the to-be-deleted rows, to make it obvious they're going to go away. We add a little JavaScript to enable drag-and-drop of the rows, for really simple sorting. Maybe we even add some keypress handlers so people can move things in the list by pressing C-x C-t or whatever seems appropriate. And if those scripts load successfully and work in the user's browser, maybe we even hide the explicit sort buttons from visual users, to avoid clutter. You do run the risk of excluding a small contingent of users that way―if you can only interact with a computer through eye-movements, visible buttons might be kind of handy―but for all I know they may have other ways of handling that, so if you've got the budget, maybe test that sort of thing and report back to the rest of us. I'd certainly love to know.

But in the end, what we end up with is a lot closer to what you might have designed as a visually-oriented UX person, but because we built it in stages, because we started with the basics and layered things on top, it's usable in far more scenarios than it might otherwise be had we started with a Photoshop mockup of the end result.

NB: As you may have noticed, there is no JS attached, and there isn't much in the way of styling. That's partly due to platform limitations, but mostly because this isn't really meant to be about how-to-build it, but more about what-to-consider in the design. It just so happens that if you build it in a certain order, those considerations naturally reveal themselves.

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21.06.2016   00:00

Alls Quiet Without Power

Last night, while attempting unsuccessfully to acquire sleepytimes, I heard a loud bang. This was quickly followed by the fomf of the power going out, and a short while later by the beeping of battery backups now without power.

Naturally, the first thing I did was go to shut down my computers. My first hint that this was more than a nearby transformer blowing is that my internet was out. My end is, naturally, well powered, but apparently my ISP does not provide battery power at their end, and their end was also without power.

Computers safely shut down, I wandered outside to see how widespread the problem was. The neighbors were without power. The streetlights, without power. I look up and down the street, and the neighboring blocks are, you guessed it, without power.

This can only mean one thing: something at the nearby substation blew.

So, naturally, I wander in the direction of the substation. On my way, I run into a police patrol. They don't stop me, but they pause briefly as they drive by to think about it. It's been maybe ten minutes, and they're already patrolling the neighborhood—a pretty impressive response time, though it seems weird that they'd respond to that at all.

A little bit later, I see some firetrucks. Nothing was on fire, so I have no idea what they were responding to, but okay. I guess they're out for the power outage as well? Well, that or they're breaking into the auto-parts store. I can't really tell.

The power company isn't at the substation yet, but that's not surprising: in all likelihood, some poor lineman has to wake up first.

So I wander around the neighborhood, to explore it in its unlit, silent glory. And it was awesome! No streetlights burning bright (the city has been slowly replacing the yellow lamps with bright blue LEDs, and if the yellow ones weren't bad enough the blue LEDs are awful). The usual ever-present hum of air conditioners was gone. And in spite of the streetlights being out, there was plenty of light to see by—though the moon being only a day or two off from full certainly helped with that.

Still no power company at the substation. But I do notice something: the nearby stoplight is blinking red. It was affected by the power loss, and has degraded itself to a four-way stop. Fascinating!

I turn around to head home, and am struck with an idea. So I wander several blocks over to the retail shops, and explore an unlit street, full of shops lit only by their emergency lights. Once in a while, I'll pass a building emitting the slow beep beep beep of a battery backup. Interestingly, the collision repair shop has plenty of lights on, and emits the unmistakable hum of a generator. I can only assume it kicked on automatically, since few people would be around so early to start it.

I head home, with a quick detour to the substation, where a pickup is just arriving. A few hours later, we finally got power again.

Losing power confirmed something I've long thought: getting rid of streetlights would be awesome! Particularly on the residential streets, where they're just not needed. Particularly that freshly installed bright blue LED two houses down that casts the glow of cheap office lighting across the entire gorram block.

It also confirms that several hours without A/C is several hours too many. Ugh.

And that my ISP needs to get on the ball, and make sure internet continues to function during a power outage. You're a phone company, making sure things continue to work should be second nature!

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