Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Few Hundred Options

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so let's start there:

Unfortunately, this is just a part of the picture. There's more, lots more. Beyond what you see here, there are another 40 or so items that are available. Altogether, you can get to a few hundred possible options in two mouse clicks or less. You’ll commonly see a statistic like that touted to indicate that an interface is good.

But, it's not a good thing -- it's overwhelming. As a user, I don't know why I'm here. The things that are shown are all over the map -- ranging from configuration to content editing to status information that's not actionable -- and there is little to help the user get oriented, figure out how the system works, or accomplish the tasks that they want to get done. Although the options are organized into sections, the sections aren't parallel, which makes them less useful. The result is that it's a Winchester Mystery House of an interface.

I could analyze this interface to death, pick apart every piece of it and tell you every single little nitpicking thing that's wrong with it.

But I'm not going to.

So why am I showing this random interface to you? Well, in November, this interface became my problem. It's the old interface of Sampa, a web site creation service, and I joined Sampa to tackle it. So what did we do with the interface?

We tossed it.

And that's the real reason that I'm not going to nitpick the old interface. It's history. I wouldn't have joined Sampa if there hadn't been a clear commitment to make big changes, whatever they were. Paul and Marcelo (CEO and CTO, respectively) signed up. At the beginning, I'm not sure they really knew just how big those changes might be.

Even before I started, I had reached the conclusion that the interface was unfixable, but Paul and Marcelo hadn't. Just today, Paul reminded me that he had thought that I could just fix the old interface. This meant I really had to make the case for a new interface.

To cut to the end of the story, we launched a completely new Sampa today.

If you're lucky enough to be presented with a problem like this, I highly recommend looking at the big picture. You can't take an unplanned explosion and overlay it with a solid foundation. In the long run, you'll regret all the time you spend on bandaids. It's a big commitment (and you might have to make the case), but you need to build a new foundation and provide yourself room to grow. Next, I’ll write more about how I made the case and, after that, I'll discuss Sampa's new UI foundation.

I just wish I could solve the clutter in my garage as easily.

Update: Follow-up article: Making the Redesign Case
Press release about launch: PDF