Friday, October 22, 2010

UI Design Skills, Here and There

While us software developers in general don't have a good reputation for user interface design (and I'm no exception, either), I've found that developers in India are a bit worse than developers in the U.S. or U.K. (but I don't mean incapable of picking it up).  After nearly a decade in India I have a good idea why, too...

It's because of what we grow up using.  My generation and recent ones grown up with computers as kids, while India is still a bit behind on that, so we've had more years of experience both using computers and helping our older relatives do things on then than Indians have had.  More time to learn and understand what is really usable and what isn't.

But also, when it comes to other household and workplace user interfaces, in the U.S. we've become accustomed to better design.

Take light switches as an example, since that's a technological UI almost everyone uses...  In the U.S. if there's a bank of light switches you can usually rely on the order of the switches matching the location of the lights.  Not always, but usually.  Often there isn't a bank of switches, but one switch wherever it's appropriate for the light.

Not so in India...  Electricians in India are typically uneducated, low-paid laborers, who like most other laborers require a supervisor to scream and yell at them to get at least the minimum work done and simply aren't paid enough to care to do a good job.  That means that usually a switch will turn a light on, but there may not be any logic or pattern as to which switch works with which light, and getting an electrician to make a switch turn on a light may end up with another switch not turning anything on.

Time and again I've seen lots of people at their homes simply flip all the switches on and off until the right light comes on.  Even at my in-laws' house most of the family turns on the lights in the living room when they want the fan, then get up again when they notice and turn off the light and turn on the fan.

For example, in the Weikfield office bathroom (don't worry, I won't go into the gross details of bathrooms) there are a couple of stalls with the light switches on post between the two stalls, but the left switch is actually for the right stall and the right switch is for the left stall (in a simple ASCII art drawing, which doesn't draw perfectly right in the preview...):

+---------------+---------+---------------+
|               |         |               |
|  +----------+ |         |  +----------+ |







|  |   left   | |         |  |   right  | |







|  |   stall  | |         |  |   stall  | |

|  |          | | +-+ +-+ |  |          | |
|  |          | | |R| |L| |  |          | |
|  |          | | +-+ +-+ |  |          | |
|  |          | |         |  |          | |
|  |          | |         |  |          | |
|  |          | |         |  |          | |
|  |          | |         |  |          | |
|  |          | |         |  |          | |
|  +----------+ |         |  +----------+ |  
|               |         |               |






+---------------+---------+---------------+

I find it confusing.  Even more so because between the other pair of stalls the switches for the stalls are in the logical order, except there are three switches and the one farthest left is actually for an overhead light outside the stalls.  When I'm done in any of them, I always get nervous turning off the light because I don't want to inconvenience any other user of a stall in case I forget which switch is which, as they're not in the most logical locations.

The switch panels in my flat in India are even worse, they're much larger, with multiple rows of switches to control lights, fans, outlets and some "nothing at all," and they're organized even more randomly with no consistency between any of the rooms.  All the rooms have a pretty similar array of lights in the same places, although some rooms just have bare wires because the builder never actually fitted lights in those spots, yet the switches don't match at al.  Since I live here I've managed to simply memorize the key ones that I actually use.

So for those who grew up in India and are used to this, the expectation when using some sort of high tech interface is to just bang away until it does what it's supposed to, because the ones in daily life aren't arranged or designed in a logical, intuitive manner.

3 comments:

  1. Hey Kevin,

    This is Yogesh hope you remember me. As told you earlier I really like the way you write and been avid follower of your blog.

    Was really busy last few days and was not able to read your bogs and was trying to catch up on few when I came across this one.

    As you can recollect we always had bit of different way the things are over here in India, whether it might be basic etiquette or facilities over here.

    I am not trying to argue that you have said something wrong over, it’s perfectly right as against what you had experienced. But unfortunately most of the time you came across some worst part of it. However there are really much better places and people, experiencing them you might have some different view.

    As India been a large country with huge population and merely 50 yrs since independence, so it probability of finding better over worse is less which is other way round in US (though my stay in US is much less than your over here, I did came across few things which were not as expected).

    As said India is developing country and I hope things improves in coming years, though minimum time frame is about 50 yrs (minimum 2 generations) and again in specific regions/states and not everywhere

    And also as always let me know if any grammatical mistakes.

    As told you earlier I can speak/write better Marathi (my native language) than English

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  2. Hi Yogesh,

    Oh yeah, I remember you... Of course...

    It's true, we've seen, but interpreted things differently about India... What I've written here is about what I've seen in regards to user interface design and my speculation about part of why I think many Indian software developers are a bit worse at UI design than western developers...

    It's certainly not all of them, there are some good UI designers in India and there's some rotten ones in the west..

    And you're right, I'm sure things will improve over time.

    I've read a book describing India like a snake, with its head in the 21st century and its tail in the 15th century. I think in many ways India has far more extremes than we have in the U.S.

    I saw that when I worked in Hinjewadi, in a high tech software technology park with high speed internet access, fancy computers and so forth, in which herders brought their cattle to graze on the grass between buildings. Of course, the same thing is true of the Weikfield office...

    One of the things I had to come to grips with in India, and failed at, was getting used to the idea that in Indian society people balance cost and quality differently than I'm used to. That's why many things (e.g. light switches, faucets, etc.) aren't so good and don't work as well in India as they do here in the U.S. Indians in general choose a lower cost for things, whereas what I'm used to in the U.S. is the expectation to pay more, and with it comes better quality...

    I'm finding that in many ways New York City is somewhere between India and Portland, Oregon, where I lived before I went to India ten years ago. For instance, in India painters always make a mess and splatter paint around when they paint a building, and do a lousy job. But I see much the same thing here in New York City in the subway when painters come down to paint the support posts that hold the streets up, lots of paint splattered around... But thats not something that would've been acceptable in Portland...

    Always a learning experience...

    -kevin

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  3. hi..Im college student, thanks for sharing :)

    ReplyDelete