As a designer, one of my favorite activities is complaining about poor design. Websites are my first victims, but even mundane objects such as microwaves and electric kettle are not immune from my piercing criticism.
But I know that nobody likes hearing a grumpy designer complain about trivial details (apparently the placement of kettle handles is not a major concern to most normal folks) so I usually keep those observations to myself.
However, in this instance I was moved to write down my thoughts, because the case of the Skype Beta for Mac is a peculiar one: proving that form and function don’t always go together, it’s an app with great visual design and attention to detail, but poor usability. Let me show you what I mean.
Mistake #1: the sign-in/sign-up form
Can you tell me what’s wrong with this picture? Maybe you can’t, but if I ask you to sign up I’m pretty sure you’ll quickly notice the problem. Like most people, you’re used to submitting a form with the right-most button (after all, we read from left to right) and so you’ll click “create new account” by mistake. The problem is accentuated by the color choice: the sign up button is light grey, which is usually a neutral color associated with secondary actions (like “go back”).
Mistake #2: mixed messages
The second problem is the new sidebar. While at first you might think it simply lists your contacts, it’s not really the case. Instead, you’re presented with a lists of events, which can be a chat but can also be any notification or “mood messages” (after years of using Skype I’m still not sure what those are for…). Why is this a problem? Well, a user mistaking this list for a contact list might expect their online contacts to show up there. But they won’t, unless the user has recently chatted with them.
Of course, since most people use Skype to chat, the “event” list ends up being more or less a “people I’ve talked to” list. The result of this weird arrangement is that when you select “Everyone” in the left sidebar, you end up with two slightly different contact llsts side by side: one of the people you’ve talked to, and one of the people currently online. I’d be willing to bet that most users don’t get this subtle nuance, and are left wondering why Skype insists on displaying the same info twice.
Mistake #3: conflict of space
So because of this weird logic, the contact lists appears in the right pane. But wait, where do I actually chat? You guessed it, in the right pane as well. So the same space is using for displaying online contacts and chatting, which completely breaks all the conventions of IM apps, and prevents you from seeing who is online while chatting.
Mistake #4: weak signal
Picture this: you’ve just logged on, and a message pops up with a nice “ding!”. It’s your boss, asking why your TPS report doesn’t have a cover sheet. Panicked, you quickly think up some half-assed excuse and hit “enter”. Woops, wrong move! That message was actually from a couple hours ago, and your boss is currently offline. If only you would’ve noticed that, you could’ve added that damn cover sheet and saved your ass. The reason you didn’t is because someone decided that the message’s timestamp should be written in grey font on a grey background.
The problem is not limited to the timestamp. For example, the only thing that can tell you if you’re online or not is a tiny 16px icon next to your username.
Mistake #5: Coverflow
Can anybody tell me why the hell we need Coverflow in Skype? (I would even argue that the “in Skype” part is superfluous, but I don’t want to go there). Do people decide who to chat with based on blurry, pixelated avatars? Or maybe Skype designers figure users will enjoy looking at an endless row of default Skype avatars (“ooh! another blue one!!”).
But it’s beta!!
Now before you point it out, I know the software is beta. That can certainly excuses any small bugs you might find. But the whole thing just seems to be going in a weirdly complex direction, and I don’t think that’s related to the app’s beta status. Let me know in the comments if you’ve had similar experiences, or if I just need to lighten up and stop complaining so much.
UPDATE – Counter-point
80/20’s Andrew Borovsky replied to my criticism via Twitter. Here’s what he had to say:
Mistake 1 – I seriously doubt anyone clicks the wrong button here (none of our usability participants did).
Mistake 2 – It’s not mixed message, it’s all about Recents. Are we breaking IM conventions? Yes! That was the plan.
Mistake 3 – Recent Contacts are more important than All Contacts. For monitoring presence there is a Contacts HUD.
Mistake 4 – Agreed but this is a minor issue easily addressed in the final build.
Mistake 5 – Cover Flow is an OPTIONAL view for the 90% of Skype users with 10 or less contacts. My grandma loves it.
Those are all valid points, and they show that the “mistakes” I noticed were due more to deliberate choices than to simply overlooking details. So I guess we will get our verdict when version 1.0 comes out and in the meantime, I’ll try to get used to Skype’s new event list paradigm.
P.S.: Also make sure to check out Huiwen Ji’s very detailed comment below.
UPDATE 2 – A couple weeks later
I tried to give Skype the benefit of the doubt on this whole “new IM paradigm” thing, but after using Skype for a couple more weeks I’m still not convinced. The biggest problem is that if you’re frequently talking with the same people, your Recent Contacts list quickly fill up with duplicate lines, since a new line is created for each conversation you hold.
So you end up with line after line attributed to the same contact, which is completely useless since they all show the same information, and takes up valuable space from the function most people actually use contact lists for (knowing who’s online).
I think it’s time to be honest about this Recent Contacts list and realize that
- It’s confusing people by going against existing conventions
- It probably doesn’t work that well on its own either