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a mirror of the »interface hall« of shame by this is a mirror of the »interface hall of shame« by isys information architects inc.

RealCD Reader Comments

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 this!!!
- Name withheld at writer's request

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.
-David Gilmore

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:
  • Leaflet? I believe most users will never discover its functionally and if they do it will be by accident.
  • the ‘Close’ button. It is just too inviting; several of my coworkers and I felt compelled to press it, prematurely closing the app.
  • the little arch symbol on the far right, next to the track times. They look as "clickable" as everything else.
  • the ‘random’ and ‘continuous’ buttons. How can something be random AND continuous? The UI lets you select both at the same time.
Finally, in my "real world" full of "real things" I have never seen a CD case that plays CDs. All of the above problems (and many others I did not comment on) can be fixed or improved through usability testing and iterative design, but I am not sure the metaphor will ever work.
- 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 Presidents. 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.)
- John Lindal

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.
- Joseph Osako

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.

Update: 11-March-1998

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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