Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Browse Music Globally

Boy, it just makes me itch when people blow a great opportunity to make the world a better place. And I hate having to go negative, too: I already spent much of today's reserve of bile on The Hitchhiker's Guide movie, and this post was going to be the big palate-cleanser that proves to the Jingo Public that Neddie ain't all about the vitriol.

First Make Nice: The folks down at the Smithsonian's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage have put together a web site called Smithsonian Global Sound, an online shop where you can download 99-cent songs from their Folkways Records -- some 2,500 album titles of ethnic music dating back decades. Their announced intention is to "encourage local musicians and traditions around the planet through international recognition, the payment of royalties, and support for regional archives."

All very laudable. An iTunes Store for field recordings of music from around the world where the artists (theoretically, at any rate) get paid -- what's not to love? The free streaming radio is truly great, you don't know what wonderful weird thing's going to come out of it next -- this afternoon I've listened to harmonium dance music from India, a capella gospel from Alabama, a Japanese jaw-harp artist, Polish-language polka from Milwaukee, a Congolese drum troupe, and Brahms' Hungarian Dance #8 played on a bizarre hammered-dulcimer-looking thing called a Cimbalom. Jack Radio for the Alienated Intellectual!

If all you wanted to do was plug into the site and launch the Radio, it would be perfect. That's mostly what I have it bookmarked for. But if you're actually trying to find something specific to download, say Balinese gamelan music or Appalachian shape-singing, you are going to butt your forehead against a byzantine bit of information design -- the sort of thing you point to as a negative example when teaching a youngster How Not to Design a Web Site.

You know you're in trouble when you click something and nothing appears to happen, and you click it again and nothing appears to happen, and then finally you notice a little bit of instruction text in the left rail, about a hand's breadth from where you'd been clicking fruitlessly, that says "SCROLL DOWN to see the results of your selections." Oh dear.

There are huge flaws all over the place -- what am I to make of a button labeled "Browse Music Globally? -- but I think the most egregious flaw is their regular flouting of the Interactivity Designer's Golden Rule: Always allow a user to correct an error, to back out of a wrong choice. Once I've begun a trek down a pipe that ends in an unexpected result, or a style of music I didn't intend to investigate, there's no quick way to start over again -- besides your browser's Back button. Phooey.

And what, please, is the difference between Browse by Instrument and Browse by Geography? What (that is to ask) is the difference between Lebanese psaltery music and psaltery music from Lebanon?

No, I hope the Smithsonian folks have big plans for Version 2 already in the works, because it's appallingly evident to me that they didn't do any usability testing on Version 1 -- I've designed enough of these things and watched, humiliated, behind one-way mirrors while test subjects flail impotently with my designs, to know that that browse mechanism would fail miserably on the average home user.

(Folks, I'm gonna say something that might be interpreted as slightly inflammatory, OK? Come on, lean in here so I can whisper it, so it's just between you 'n' me, right...? OK, here we go: Don't ever, ever, EVER, under any circumstances, I don't care if tsunamis will be unleashed and comets will crash into earth if you slip your deadline, never -- that's NEVER, OK? -- let a goddamned software engineer within 6000 yards of user-facing UI design. 'Kay? That's it. Lesson for the day. Clap the erasers and empty the trash. Class dismissed.)


bunny said...

Software engineers *can* be good UI designers, just not on projects where they are writing code. The only important skill they need (in addition to all of the skills they would normally need for doing both jobs) is the ability to not think about how the design will be implemented. UI designers should never ever think about how hard something will be to implement, or even if it's possible. Comprimises will sneak in later, but the goal should be coming up with the best deisgn. Besides, when you give them something impossible, the programmers will often come up with a way to do at least the major parts of your design anyway.

Neddie said...

bunny: Agree completely that all SW engineers are not bad designers -- that's a bit of a slander that I like to put out to stimulate discussion. However, when they are also building the code, they have a huge incentive to force the UI to conform to the requirements of an existing product instead of rewriting their code to conform to humane design -- basically, to save themselves some work. I fight this battle every day.

The problem with the Smithsonian site (and I'm quite certain I'm right on this; I've seen it far too many times not to recognize it), is that some outside firm flim-flammed the Smithsonian people with a byzantine database solution that required that that Music Browse be implemented in the bizarre way that it was, and nobody in the Smithsonian organization had either the chops or (more likely) the power to do the basic user-advocacy that sites like that need. Add to that no money budgeted for testing and no time in the schedule to correct any usability problems, and you've got the same goddamned usability cluster-[event] that ruins so many decent products.

What? Too dogmatic?