That's kind of a provocative title, so let me just get this out of the way: No, no they are not. And I am not crazy enough to attempt to convince you otherwise. That said, they aren't nearly as bad as they're given credit for.

Let's do this by way of example. Suppose you have a list, and users need to be able to sort it, alter the items in the list, and delete items. All your front-end developers are busy, and so are the UX people, so it's up to that backend developer to bang something out. What are they going to give you? Something, I suspect, an awful lot like this:

Sort Item Delete?

In other words, a <table> that closely mimics the underlying database structure. Yeah, I can hear the internal screams of the UX people from here. But let's consider this for a moment. Is this going to be fun to use? No. Definitely not. But in its straightforward simplicity, it gives us something that's kind of amazing: anybody can use this form. No matter how spotty your network connectivity, if you managed to load this form, you can submit it. If all you have is a text-only browser, you can use this form. No mouse? That's okay, this form is keyboard-accessible. Do you interact with your computer via voice command? This form will be serviceable.

For the vast majority of your users, this is not great UX. But it is Universal UX. Anybody―everybody―can use it! The web is universally accessible by default, and by staying away from the fancy stuff, by building something that would be at home in 1994, our backend developer managed to preserve that.

We definitely don't want to stop here, but it's a pretty great jumping-off point. So let's put our UX hat on and start making some improvements.

Sort Item Delete?

Some quick wins are simply to adjust the sort values to make rearranging easier, and adjusting the text of the button. Not terribly complicated, even the backend developer can manage it.

Sort Item Delete?

But of course, manually entering the sort weight is awful, so maybe we add some buttons to adjust the list sorting, so users can click a button, rather than type in sort values, and hide the numeric input with a little CSS. We'll leave it in the DOM both for text-only browsers, and to give a place for our buttons to store the sort order (assuming they function via JavaScript).

Sort Item Delete?

And as we get fancier, maybe we dim or strike-through the to-be-deleted rows, to make it obvious they're going to go away. We add a little JavaScript to enable drag-and-drop of the rows, for really simple sorting. Maybe we even add some keypress handlers so people can move things in the list by pressing C-x C-t or whatever seems appropriate. And if those scripts load successfully and work in the user's browser, maybe we even hide the explicit sort buttons from visual users, to avoid clutter. You do run the risk of excluding a small contingent of users that way―if you can only interact with a computer through eye-movements, visible buttons might be kind of handy―but for all I know they may have other ways of handling that, so if you've got the budget, maybe test that sort of thing and report back to the rest of us. I'd certainly love to know.

But in the end, what we end up with is a lot closer to what you might have designed as a visually-oriented UX person, but because we built it in stages, because we started with the basics and layered things on top, it's usable in far more scenarios than it might otherwise be had we started with a Photoshop mockup of the end result.

NB: As you may have noticed, there is no JS attached, and there isn't much in the way of styling. That's partly due to platform limitations, but mostly because this isn't really meant to be about how-to-build it, but more about what-to-consider in the design. It just so happens that if you build it in a certain order, those considerations naturally reveal themselves.

Last night, while attempting unsuccessfully to acquire sleepytimes, I heard a loud bang. This was quickly followed by the fomf of the power going out, and a short while later by the beeping of battery backups now without power.

Naturally, the first thing I did was go to shut down my computers. My first hint that this was more than a nearby transformer blowing is that my internet was out. My end is, naturally, well powered, but apparently my ISP does not provide battery power at their end, and their end was also without power.

Computers safely shut down, I wandered outside to see how widespread the problem was. The neighbors were without power. The streetlights, without power. I look up and down the street, and the neighboring blocks are, you guessed it, without power.

This can only mean one thing: something at the nearby substation blew.

So, naturally, I wander in the direction of the substation. On my way, I run into a police patrol. They don't stop me, but they pause briefly as they drive by to think about it. It's been maybe ten minutes, and they're already patrolling the neighborhood—a pretty impressive response time, though it seems weird that they'd respond to that at all.

A little bit later, I see some firetrucks. Nothing was on fire, so I have no idea what they were responding to, but okay. I guess they're out for the power outage as well? Well, that or they're breaking into the auto-parts store. I can't really tell.

The power company isn't at the substation yet, but that's not surprising: in all likelihood, some poor lineman has to wake up first.

So I wander around the neighborhood, to explore it in its unlit, silent glory. And it was awesome! No streetlights burning bright (the city has been slowly replacing the yellow lamps with bright blue LEDs, and if the yellow ones weren't bad enough the blue LEDs are awful). The usual ever-present hum of air conditioners was gone. And in spite of the streetlights being out, there was plenty of light to see by—though the moon being only a day or two off from full certainly helped with that.

Still no power company at the substation. But I do notice something: the nearby stoplight is blinking red. It was affected by the power loss, and has degraded itself to a four-way stop. Fascinating!

I turn around to head home, and am struck with an idea. So I wander several blocks over to the retail shops, and explore an unlit street, full of shops lit only by their emergency lights. Once in a while, I'll pass a building emitting the slow beep beep beep of a battery backup. Interestingly, the collision repair shop has plenty of lights on, and emits the unmistakable hum of a generator. I can only assume it kicked on automatically, since few people would be around so early to start it.

I head home, with a quick detour to the substation, where a pickup is just arriving. A few hours later, we finally got power again.

Losing power confirmed something I've long thought: getting rid of streetlights would be awesome! Particularly on the residential streets, where they're just not needed. Particularly that freshly installed bright blue LED two houses down that casts the glow of cheap office lighting across the entire gorram block.

It also confirms that several hours without A/C is several hours too many. Ugh.

And that my ISP needs to get on the ball, and make sure internet continues to function during a power outage. You're a phone company, making sure things continue to work should be second nature!

A few years ago, my friend Sparky got married. I took a ton of pictures, but until now, never actually did anything with them. So let's reminisce.

All aboard the wedding train! )

While I am ostensibly a "full-stack" web developer, it's no secret that I'm not particulary fond of the front-end. In large part, this may be because the world seems to be full of bad front-end developers, who by and large are fantastic at building crappy versions of desktop apps inside a browser, but are incredibly bad at building things which are truly of the web.

What makes a good front-end developer? I asked @janiukjf this after her presentation at the ExperiencingUX meetup last night, and she says part of it is a willingness to stay up to date with the constantly-popping-up front end frameworks. And certainly, the front-end changes quickly and it's hard to keep up.

But do we need to keep up? I'm not convinced we do.

After all: a regular form post has worked since the 90s. It's not going to stop working! We built websites without CSS for years―CSS is a wonderful addition, but if your website is nonsensical without CSS, it'll be nonsensical in a text-only browser. It will potentially be less useful to a screen-reader (an h1 and a div with an enlarged font are likely to be expressed differently) or other assistive technology. But even with CSS, you don't have to be on the cutting edge to do useful, beautiful things. In fact it probably helps to avoid being on the forefront: older CSS tends to work better and in more browsers.

And then there's JavaScript: the easiest way to turn a browser into a fragile, distributed computing environment. We built websites without JS for over a decade, and eschewing megabytes of JavaScript to display basic text would greatly improve the speed of the web. Properly applied, JavaScript can be used to do amazing things, but there's no shame in making a simple line-of-business CRUD app out of plain ol' 90s-era forms if that's all it really needs.

So what makes a good front-end developer? I think it's embracing the limitations of the web. It's understanding that the web isn't a pixel-perfect medium; that sometimes your images or fonts or styles or scripts won't load and you have to handle that; it's understanding that the web is populated not just by developers with the latest Macbook and ten-year-olds with iPhones, but also little old ladies with dusty old Gateway computers and cheap faded monitors, and the web should work for all of them. It's understanding that the browser is a hostile computing environment in which anything we tell it to do is a mere suggestion and if we break when it doesn't that is our fault and we need to handle it.

And quite frankly, that's really hard.

A while back I made an attempt to use healthcare.gov to acquire health insurance. The experience was … unpleasant. Here are some things that irked me:

JavaScript

It's broken without JS. While this is incredibly common, it will always garner a complaint from me. If I am in a browser I do not want an "app-like" experience, I want a web-like experience.

It includes JS from third parties. Look, maybe you trust Google, MxPnl, or Optimizely, but I sure don't. On the bright side, it worked even without running JS from those companies—though I don't know whether the credit goes to NoScript's surrogates or the HC.gov developers.

Laggy

It felt very sluggish while I was attempting to use it. When I entered my zip code, it would miss keystrokes. E.g., if I keyed in "90210", what appeared in the field would be more like "91". Clearly it's doing a network request to give me a list of cities, but is it doing it synchronously or something? Because wow is that a terrible experience.

Poor Name Handling

It told me my first name was invalid. I'm used to systems mucking up other parts of my name, but that was a new one. Unfortunately, I don't remember what I originally tried to enter. (Probably my initials, since that's what I go by.)

The name suffix is a select. It contains Sr., Jr., III, IV, and sometimes V. So much for Henry VIII. Or me, for that matter, because I'm a II (NB: Jr. and II are not equivalent). I think in the end I made the suffix part of my last name.

Notice that sometimes V? That's because I came across two name selects. The second was missing the V, which means the two selects aren't even pulling from the same source. (For that matter, why am I entering this data multiple times? Last I checked computers were really good at copying. Just ask the MPAA.)

Lousy Identity Verification

Identity verification systems are pretty much always terrible because they pretend public information is a shared secret, and this is no exception. My name and address are both public, and my SSN might as well be given the number of organizations that have it on file. The credit bureaus they use to verify my identity, for example, are companies I have never directly interacted with or provided any information to, and yet they have all this information. When third parties have your data through no fault of your own, that's pretty much the definition of non-private data.

The follow-up identity verification questions are at least as terrible. One of them was "County for the provided address". What is that even verifying? That I know what address I just gave you?

Multiple Paper Forms, Now Online

I think I accepted the privacy policy something like half a dozen times. And had to enter my personal information—address, e-mail, etc.—multiple times as well. Did they just do a direct translation of the various paper forms to the web or something? Because that's awful.

Even some of Q&A walkthrough steps felt like paper forms directly copied to the web. "Did you recently lose coverage?" "Yes." "Are you losing coverage in the next 60 days?" … I'm pretty sure the answer to the first question makes the second one not applicable!

Unnecessary Info Required

As far as I can tell, insurance rates must be the same regardless of sex, so why does it require me to specify that? Also, the error for failure to fill out the sex field is hilarious: "select at least one item". Naturally, it enforces a gender binary and doesn't allow you to pick both.

It requires a phone number. So what do people without phones do? Or people who just plain don't like phones. Alas, I did not attempt to enter an invalid number like 555-0123, so maybe it takes those? I used a voicemail-only number I maintain specifically for such forms.

Unclear Results

So when I finally got all the way through, what are the results of my application? It says "Eligible to purchase health coverage through the Marketplace", and I think "Yay, I can finally move on to the thing I was actually trying to accomplish!". So I keep reading in the "What should I do next?" section and it tells me "You cannot choose or change plans at this time…".

Have I been mistaken about the meaning of eligible all these years? Because I thought it meant you can do something, and it's telling me the opposite. I get what it's telling me now—I could, if only some other conditions were met—but wow is that ever confusing.

Suspicious Goodbye

Defeated, stressed, and missing hours of my life I'll never get back, I log out. That takes me to cuidadodesalud.gov, whereupon I am presented with a blank page. (JS is not enabled for that domain because I've never been there, obvs.) I guess that's the Spanish version of healthcare.gov? Not sure why it decided to send me there, but after a long frustrating experience, being dumped onto a suspicious letter salad domain is a fitting cherry on top.

Final Thoughts

I guess on the upside all my complaints are about details, which means at some level it's at least functional. But I think I'd rather pay the fine for not having health insurance than put myself through that a second time, which pretty much defeats the entire point of the site.

July 2016

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