A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds

A Foolish Consistency?

We recently enrolled in a “designer lite” onsite course at leading Business Process Management (BPM) vendor’s location. It had been quite a while since I was a student in such as class--usually I’ve been the one teaching classes. It was nice to be in the passenger seat this time and see via their established curriculum the development environment for their BPM.

We were already aware of the common features and functions of what BPM technology can be used for, therefore I was focusing my efforts on understanding their particular development environment and, of course, understanding and exploring it’s User Experience. In general the User Experience of the development environment of this system was well thought out and designed well. Things moved forward in an intuitive fashion and were not forced to accommodate any new ways of thinking. See also: Jean Piaget & the Usability of Healthcare Software

As we stepped through the course curriculum, and interacted with selected elements of the User Interface, I couldn’t help by think of a famous quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson on consistency:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

The User Experience seemed to make sense, but the User Interface, struggled with a number of fairly common usability issues including:

  • Inconsistent button order (seriously? this is 2017!),
  • a combination of two or more UI schemes,
  • a search vs filter confusion,
  • and a bunch of other issues.

The instructor tried to explain the fact that a large part of the UI was based upon their “Legacy” system and that their development teams will eventually update these sections of the UI to match the “look and Feel” of the new design.

Their “updated” UI used a menu based navigation scheme that unfortunately used a number of nested modal dialogs. These dialogs were presented with a very consistent size and structure; no matter what content was displayed.

The “legacy” UI presented standard enterprise style left-side hierarchical navigation panel that drove a Master-Detail page of fields, pop-ups and controls necessary to create/modify/delete BMP objects.

Sure I’m going back and forth between talking about inconsistencies, and consistencies, and this is exactly what made my think about the Emerson quote above. When is it OK to have a consistent User Interface, and when is it OK to have exceptions?

  • Button order consistency must be maintained – you can’t have “OK Cancel” on some screens and “Cancel OK” on others (In the BMP presented during training the system had “Save and Close; Save” and “Save; Save and Close”) (see 'OK-Cancel' or 'Cancel-OK?' How about both! )

  • User Experience constancy needs to be maintained too. It is difficult to have one part of the system look and work one way, and then have other major portions (the “legacy system”) work with a complete different User Experience.
  • Dialogs are a necessary evil, but if you use them they all do NOT have to be the same size, and structure across the entire UI (“A foolish consistency”).

    In the system presented during the training the dialogs were all of same size. Sometimes the content filled only about 1/3 of the dialog space and the (inconsistent) control buttons were presented below a large amount of white space. Sometimes the content filled about 110 percent of the dialog which then forced the user to scroll down in order to even see or get to the inconsistent control buttons.

BTW : Nested model dialogs are evil. All systems need to avoid them.