As we had hoped, our review of IBM's RealCD has generated some rather spirited discussion, both in the form of e-mail we have received from visitors, and discussion in software design newsgroups. We are posting some of the messages here in an effort to stimulate further thought and discussion on the many issues raised by IBM's design philosophy, and our opinion of it.
Last updated 29-November-1998
Right On! I worked for IBM for (over 10) years and must agree with you on almost
every point you made. I was appalled at the amount of bad science that went
on in the HF and User Architect group. It's very disappointing to know that
virtually nothing has changed in this group's philoshophy in the last (several)
years since I left. Very nice review. Keep up the good work.
- Name withheld at Isys' discretion
I too am an ex-IBMer who tried to do Usability and Human Factors work. But I wanted to do things the management did not want, like test and design from the users perspective.
It seems that the survivors are doing stuff that looks good to the
management and therefore they keep their jobs. Too bad they are not
doing stuff that will enable the future.
Funny, I know several of the folks in the IBM interface group and this
interface they are working on really surprises me. I thought they would
use the user-centered design principles at least. Maybe that they don't
and that's why they have an HCI page and a User Centered Design page.
Someday they will realize their mistakes. Those guys are smarter than
Excerpts from a lengthy criticism of the review from Bryan Oakley:
I think you have completely missed the point. You seemed to review the software as if it was destined to be a well-behaved Windows95 client, instead of being the design study that it is.
I would argue that the ease in which one intuits the features and functions of a design is _not_ necessarily indicitive of a good design.
Is it a good user interface design in general? In my opinion, Yes.
Have you ever had any comments from IBM about your
critiques of RealPhone and RealCD? Your critiques on IBM's Real Thing charade seem spot on and I
would love to hear their response - if they have one.
You could not have been more right then you were. I don't think you missed
much of the complete STUPIDITY in the GUI. This is the worst user
interface application I have ever had the pleasure (NOT) of using. Even
after staring at it for hours, I never found the help book. I will tell
you that I was rolling on the floor laughing (ROFL) long before I came to
the end of your review in the Hall of Shame. I want to thank you for the
laughter you provided.
- Eric Courtemanche
I will not spend much time critiquing the UI controls and labels
because I’m sure they are in their early stages (first or second
iteration) and will improve. Generally, the UI is aesthetically
pleasing. However, what is with the:
- Chuck Harrison
Thanks for saving me from a depressing download. ;)
- Jean-Claude Dumas
As for the RealCD player, I can offer only the following comment: How many
people use a CD case to play CDs? Surely, if they wanted to make the
interface intuitive, modelled on the real-world and easy for playing
on-line music, they would have made the interface look as much like a CD
player as possible (which, coincidentally, is how most software CD players
that I've seen are implemented)...?
Next they'll give us a video viewer designed to look like a TV cabinet, or
perhaps a text (book) viewer which behaves like a set of shelves... :-)
- Mark Otway
Incredible. Take the constraints that physical
designers have been wrestling with for decades and virtually
apply them to a medium where they were happily absent, then
remove one dimension and a wealth of other informative
attributes, and you have worst of both worlds. Present me
with problems from the physical world so I'll feel more
comfortable? I never understood this over emphasis on
metaphor. It must be Gerstner's nephew running that project.
- Mike Anderson
Your criticisms of IBM's RealCD are on target and devastating. I would
agree with IBM that we may find a metaphor that works without window
frames, title bars, menus, etc. But RealCD and RealPhone ARE NOT good
examples. They picked an interesting possibility, then crash and burned.
- Jerry Porter
At last I've discovered the prototype for Dilbert's pointy-haired boss.
He's the director of IBM's User Interface Architecture and Design Group!
And that guy's boss lives down to my worst impressions of IBM Vice
Why does Gilbert and Sullivan's "I cleaned the windows so carefully that
now I am the ruler of the Queen's navy!" come to mind here?
- "Dr. T"
I was surprised to find that there are lots of negative criticisms on
RealCD. When I first saw what IBM was saying and downloaded and tried
RealCD, I simply thought that maybe it's really something and
ground-breaking inovative design or something because that's what they
were so emphasising. I felt this way even after having many problems
using the software.. But after seeing your pages on critically
assessing RealCD, I found many problems I have encountered using
RealCD being mentioned and realised that I was not really that
comfortable using RealCD. And more and more I come to think of it, I
find RealCD not very easy to use. I had been just accepting what IBM
was saying without much thought myself.
- Hyowon Lee
IBM seems to have forgotten one all-important fact: the interfaces of
physical objects are themselves subject to laws of interface design.
These laws are -not- the same ones as for computer programs.
For example, physical objects must accommodate fat fingers with large buttons, a range of hand sizes with appropriately sized handles and dials, and in general, the shape of the human body (e.g. a telephone handset reaches from the ear to the mouth)
If they are at all commensurable, the restrictions on physical objects are far more severe. As an example, the per-unit cost is often the deciding factor in the design of physical objects, while being completely irrelevant for software. This is why a phone may have 10 slots for storing names, while the equivalent program can allow an unlimited number (and can also allow searching, editing, sorting, etc.)
The front panel of a VCR is a good generic example. The old one that I
have is just plain cryptic because it consists of a bunch of small, poorly
labelled buttons. The per-unit cost was no doubt very important. However,
once designers realized they could display everything on the TV screen,
they switched to menus and input fields. My new VCR works this way, and it
took me all of 5 seconds to figure it out, without reading any
documentation. In this case, the interface that is closer to a computer is
far superior, not the other way around. (Ironically, I suspect that the
new VCR's unit cost is lower.)
In the words of Nelson-sensei, "Not all Looks and Feels have been Seen or
Felt." As he pointed out long before anyone else, a virtual design should
reflect the what he calls the 'true structure' of the system (in this case,
a group of songs to be selected from, ordered and rearranged as the user
sees fit), not the arbitrary limitations of previous 'familiar' systems.
RealCD is so full of this type of conceptual clutter (as opposed to the
screen 'clutter' the designers deride) that it is hard to believe it could
be used at all for its intended purpose. Even the basic metaphor fails -
when was the last time you played a CD *case*? Ludicrous.
While it is admirable to try to add new virtualities for user interface
design, the only *reason* to do so is to make it easier to use, both for
the novice and the expert. The RealCD experiment fails at this utterly. If
it had only been an experiment, that would be acceptable, since mistakes
are part of the price of learning. That IBM is presenting it as a success -
a breakthrough, no less - is frankly appalling, however.
To date, we have not received any response from the folks at IBM's User Interface Architecture and Design Group. We have noticed, however, that their RealCD Frequently Asked Questions now includes several references to points we have made in the review. It's certainly worth a look.
We received the following message from someone at IBM's Human Interaction group:
Thank you for responding to the questionnaire. It looks like you spent a measurable amount of time going through the RealCD and RealPhone. Just to let you know, we are releasing an enhanced version of the RealCD on Thursday that addresses some of your concerns..although we are sticking with our real world metaphors.
It should be noted that the new release of the product is still labeled 'Version 1.0'.
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