Skype Beta for Mac’s Usability Failings

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

Quick, which one do you click?

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

Only one of those is a contact list

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

One window for everything

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

Watch out for that timestamp

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

Coverflow: Apples's great gift to UI

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.

Do you really need to show him four times?

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

  1. It’s confusing people by going against existing conventions
  2. It probably doesn’t work that well on its own either

About Me

I'm Sacha Greif, a web designer freelancing out of Paris, France. You can check out my portfolio, and of course you should follow me on Twitter.

13 Responses to “Skype Beta for Mac’s Usability Failings”

  • Huiwen Ji

    Great post Sacha. But I’m gonna have to disagree with you on a couple of “mistakes” you’ve pointed out.

    First, the login/sign up window.

    I agree with you that light grey while used on a button together with a light blue button on its side could usually be seen as a neutral color associated with secondary actions. However you’ve overlooked the context in this specific case, the buttons are placed on a blue background, only slightly darker than the blue signup button which made the button almost fade into the background. On the other hand, the login forms, the “remember me” check box and the “sign in” button are all aligned to the left and are all rendered in white/light grey, which is, in my point of view, very cohesive.

    On your point that most people are used to submitting a form with the right-most button, that’s simplely not true either. People does read from left to right, but they also read from top to bottom. If you pay enough attention to signup/login form designs you’d know that forms with the “submit” button on the right/bottom right corner usually would have everything aligned to the right to help visually direct users attention towards the button. But that’s not the case in this specific design either.

    Second, the recent list in sidebar vs. the actual contact list

    For people who actually has a whole bunch of contacts, it could be much more convenient and much faster to find someone who they constantly talk to in the recent list, sorted by day, week and month, instead of try to find them by scrolling through their entire contact list or by searching, and the part where you said people will eventually end up with two almost identical contact lists side by side is simply not going to happen, unless you only have 5 person in your contact list.

    Third, using the same space for contact list and chatting

    I agree with you on this as it does seem a bit awkward. However, you actually do still have the option to see who’s online while chatting with someone. All you need to do is to click on the little split window icon on the top right corner of your contacts group list pane on the left, and Skype will pop out a floating window to show a list of online contacts, but there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to see your offline contacts while chatting with someone.

    And Last, what I found to be the best way to check my on/offline status is to look at the skype status icon in the menu bar on the top right corner of my screen. It will always be there regardless of the program I’m currently operating in.

    7 Jan 7:26 pm
    Reply
    • Sacha

      Thanks for taking the time to write out your thoughts! I guess my point about the button is that I instinctively look to the right and down for the submit button. If I don’t see one, I keep going right and down until in this case I hit the “create new account” button. Maybe aligning the “sign in” button to the right edge of the form fields might be enough to prevent that mistake.

      I get your point about the “recent” list, but is that how most people expect a contact list to work? And couldn’t the same results be achieved by simply sorting all online contacts by date of last chat?

      And while the other problems are not a huge deal, they add to the general feeling of the interface being a little off (but then again, maybe that feeling will go away by the time version 1.0 is released).

      7 Jan 8:38 pm
  • Paz

    Oh if it was only these issues, I’d be quite happy with this Skype version. When I first launched the beta, I was surprised — but not unpleasantly so. I liked the new approach, it’s fresh, looks more contemporary and seems to make sense altogether. I really wanted to like it, unfortunately it turned out to be completely unusable and rather annoying. The main issue that forced me to switch back to the old Skype was that, in a video conversation, it is absolutely impossible to shuffle between chat and video. I managed to bring up the chat window but subsequently never saw the video window again. It was vanished, even in future conversations with the same contact. I can’t say I didn’t try hard enough looking for the button to bring up the video again (and I don’t think users should have to try hard), it was impossible and sadly I decided to switch back to the old Skype. In a video conversation I frequently use the chat window to send links, quotes, spell out words or whatever else. It is quite essential for me and without the possibility to use chat alongside video, Skype becomes useless for me.

    I hope some of the issues will be addressed in future versions but sadly, given the speed at which Skype rolls out features for us Apple folks, I don’t have high hopes that this will happen any time soon.

    8 Jan 3:21 pm
    Reply
    • Sacha

      I didn’t touch on that issue because I rarely use the video chat (I use Skype for work and don’t really need people to see my face), but it’s a good point. The “handle” to drag out the video is very subtle, and can be hard to see if you’re not looking for it:

      8 Jan 3:51 pm
    • Sacha

      By the way, I’ve now encountered many people who similarly couldn’t figure how to switch between video and chat.

      So it’s fair to say that it probably was not a good idea to make one of your app’s most used action rely on a faint grey drag and drop handle…

      3 Feb 12:00 pm
  • Felix D

    Great post, Sacha, and good points.

    I think the biggest “issue” is that the overall new UI design is SO different from the previous version of Skype. I’m sure usability testing bore out that people don’t have that much trouble using individual bits of the beta UI, but in terms of building a product that fits in with – and builds incrementally on – people’s actual behavior, I think the verdict is still out.

    4 Apr 7:33 pm
    Reply
  • Jon

    “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).”

    Hey, why not? Seriously, has there ever been an app where CoverFlow made it better?

    The only time I end up in CF (in the Finder, in iTunes, on my iPod) is by mistake and the first thing I do is get out of it. If there’s even one pixel devoted to CF in an app, that’s too much. I wish I could permanently disable it everywhere.

    If the Skype people think CF is so great why don’t they use it everywhere, like on their webpage? You’d think it’d be an even better fit there since there they have complete control over the contents and can ensure that it’s fewer than 10 items on the page. Instead they chose to use the old fashioned “scrollbar” type interaction, which is simple and efficient and boring and functional!

    Other places that should add CF: Gmail (messages), Photoshop (layers), Xcode (lines of code), Excel (cells). We can make everything use CoverFlow because it’s so cooool!

    6 Apr 10:54 pm
    Reply
  • Lukas Mathis’ Skype 5 UI Ideas — miekd

    [...] thoughtful list of design ideas, finished up with a good amount of links to related articles by [...]

    6 Apr 11:25 pm
    Reply
  • Yossef

    I came back to 2.8. I really dislike the new version. Small is beautiful !

    I want only one list of contacts, the contact I have in my Address Book, maybe a list of favorites like on iPhone, as a switch. I want the smallest window as possible because when I talk I’m often doing something else. Moreover, I don’t need a big window when I call, actually I don’t need ANY window when I call. I need it before I call, never during the call, but ok to keep it if it is used for the chat. Don’t mix the various chats, make the people you chat with as a left tab, clicking on a name activate the conversation, put a green light when somebody write something and may be other colors to indicate the status of the conversation. Get inspiration from the iPhone.

    7 Apr 12:17 am
    Reply
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