One Click from Disaster: Errorproofing Web Interface Designs

Just recently I wrote about how many rogue tweets are the fault of poor user interface design in Rogue Tweets: Where They Come From; How to Stop Them. In early 2010 I also wrote about this topic in When No Communication is Best: Speed Skating, Morphine Overdoses and the Wings Fall Off Button. But I see that the lessons of errorproof interface design are not being learned very quickly.

Many rogue tweets with serious consequences are caused by people tweeting a message to the wrong account. But if you look at excellent clients like Tweetdeck or web services like Hootsuite the choice of account is made by clicking on tiny icons that are very close together. It is only a matter of time before you send a message the wrong way. On the Twitter web page, too, many people confuse the post, search and direct message spaces. The usual solution for these errors is to fire the operator and the agency, but I don't much effort into improving interface design.

Another example appeared this month when I tried the new shortmail.com email service. This interesting new idea in email limits all messages to 500 characters and adds the potentially very useful feature of hosting public open letters on their site. The only problem is that to choose between a secret message and a public one there are two "radio" buttons, so it is very easy to click the wrong one. In some cases you are literally one click from disaster.

To be fair I have to add that when I discovered this risk and tweeted about it the people atShortmail responded immediately to the feedback and are working to improve this aspect of the design, but I am still surprised that these problems still arise.

We can learn many lessons from the world of aviation where errorproofing aircraft controls, operational procedures and maintenance operations is normal practice. Put simply, the interface design should make it easy to do things correctly and hard to make mistakes with serious consequences.

For example, in the case of the Shortmail public messages the difference between private and public messages should be more visible. I would prefer a highly visible change in color at the very least, but maybe also a safety net like a further question like "You asked to make this message public. Are you sure? In the case of social media clients like Tweetdeck and services like Hootsuite I would also like to see a more visible sign of which account you have chosen. Perhaps the active columns could change color or maybe they need large headers with the account name. You could even add safety net features like a warning when you are tweeting a message containing certain words to a client's account.


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