12 January 2015
This is the disappointing story of a user who decided to delete Rego, and give it a one-star review.
In the first version of Rego—an app we make for bookmarking locations—each place the user captured was represented on the map with a yellow pin. Over time, some customers expressed the desire to highlight certain places by changing their pin color, and so Rego version 2 introduced the ability to over-ride the default yellow pin color assignment with any of five additional color choices.
If a user goes to the trouble of changing a place’s pin color, it means that the place is somehow “special” to him, and we wanted to reflect that meaning through emphasis in the user interface. And so when designing this feature, we decided to display a colored dot in the place listing for any place that had been assigned a non-default pin color. This approach was consistent with how we highlighted starred places in that same list.
In the screenshot below, you can see that I’ve favorited (starred) the Makalu office, have assigned a red pin to our daily coffee shop and purple pins to two local businesses.
This design decision, however, introduces an inconsistency in the user interface, i.e. the absence of a yellow dot displayed in the list, for those places which have not had a custom pin assignment.
Keep in mind we’re talking about the dot that is present in the place listing, and not the color of the pin on the map. On the map, each place’s pin is displayed in the color it has been assigned, including yellow ones.
“Consistency”, as taught to us in Design 101 by Robin Williams, is one of the four bedrocks of good design and something to generally strive for. But sometimes inconsistency can serve a purpose. The visual inconsistency in this case is acceptable when it consciously serves a conceptual purpose, which is to highlight those places which are somehow special to the user.
Last week, budding designer “Leonardo” from Argentina wrote in to alert us to this inconsistency:
Hi, the yellow pin doesn’t have the color in the little circle de other pins when seeing it on the main list view. Maybe because is the default color?
To which I replied:
Hello Leo, that’s correct; we only show the small circle for the places that have been assigned non-default colors.
A few months ago, another user wrote in about this inconsistency, and after I explained the reasoning behind it replied, “Oh, I hadn’t thought about it like that before. Now that you’ve explained it, that makes perfect sense.”
Evidently, though, Leonardo hasn’t yet come to appreciate that design, like so many endeavors in life, isn’t a matter of black and white, but rather a world of grays in which decisions are made in the context of trade-offs. He wrote back:
But that’s inconsistent UI design. If you show a list where I select a color for the pin, (see screenshot) and you call it “Yellow Pin”, the expectation is that you’re going to show a yellow dot on the main screen. Because when I select any other color I get the corresponding colored dot. You either got two options. You leave it as it is but change the name and color from Yellow pin to None, or Default or something like that, or you just show the yellow dot on the main screen like you do with all the other colors, which would be the most logical thing to do in my opinion.
To which I replied:
Inconsistency is fine, when it make sense. Imagine a person who never changed the default pin color. If we showed all their places in the list with a yellow dot, the presence of that dot would convey no information other than, “These are the places for which you took no action.” In other words, the yellow dot would serve as user interface noise. In the current implementation, the presence of any dot communicates the following, “This is a place that has some special meaning to you, such that you took the time to assign a special pin color to it.”
Evidently, Leonardo doesn’t take kindly to people disagreeing with his opinion, and decided that my disagreement warranted the complete deletion of what was an otherwise useful application from his device. Leo writes:
Ok, this is as far as I’ll go. Thank you for your logical reasons for bad UI. I’ll just delete the app. Happy new year for you too.
Oh well, you can’t win them all.
I thought that was the end of it, but no; Leo was apparently so upset that I didn’t agree with his viewpoint that he decided to abuse the app rating mechanism to continue to express his anger, and to characterize the situation as a “bug”, supported by “crappy customer service.”
No matter what one’s opinion is on the issue, the decision not to display yellow dots in the place list is certainly not to the detriment of any functionality in the app, and so it’s really a pity that a person like Leonardo would go to such lengths as to damage a product’s reputation and future sales simply in objection to disagreement. It’s also a pity that in the app store, only his voice is heard; the developer doesn’t have the ability to recount the full context behind the review.