User Interfaces Still Suck

I’ve been …. busy. I was commuting to Amsterdam weekly for work for three months, and needless to say that didn’t leave much time for blogging. Here’s to hoping I’ll be able to keep up on it a bit more!

I use quite a few digital products, as I’m sure you do. I work with quite a few more, and in most cases, it seems that though we (as a species) have made some great strides in User Interface (UI) design and the User Experience (UX), there’s still room for improvement.

It’s a bit of a trope, but this was brought back into focus for me with my mother this evening. My mother is a senior citizen, and she did not grow up with computers like I did. She’s been having a great deal of difficulty printing emails.

Being the filial son that I am, I sent her an email with a list of instructions exactly how to do it. She uses HoTMaiL in Firefox on the Mac, and so I said that instead of using “File | Print” in the menu, that she needed to click on the three dots in the blue bar and then select Print.

What seemed a quick, easy, and logical thing for me quickly became an exercise in significant frustration for her.

First, let’s examine an assumption. If you’re in an email programme, and you want to print, chances are you want to print an email.

This assumption is not a valid one when you’re using webmail, because the web browser’s print function (File | Print) prints web pages, and so she would get a printout of the screen. It would show folders and part of the previewed message, and so would to her look “cut off” and “not right”. In fairness, her expectation is reasonable, as is her reaction.

I explained to her why things were the way they were (the “logical” computer reasoning) and that there was a separate print function for the emails, accessible via the three dots.

She heard (or later got into her head) “three lines”.

Regardless of what she heard or how dots turned into lines, the first real point to make is: why is the print function for emails hidden in a menu that wouldn’t under any circumstances lead one to look for it there?

I had to search for the print function to even begin to let her know how to print.

Then, once it was found and I could provide the instructions, and I told her about the “three dots” menu, let’s look at the screen she sees, which is the same as it is for my account.


Those three dots in the middle are how you print an email. Seriously.


Missed them? Here’s the same image with the dots circled.

Now, let’s look at the same screen, but instead of “three dots”, what happens when you think of “three lines”?

Oh, it gets crazy.


Yes, there are three things there that have three lines on them. Note that the “Notifications” button (upper right) also has three dots in addition to three lines.

So, thinking three lines, my mother attempted to figure out how to print.

The scary part is, that she found a way.


There’s another print button there!

There is another way to print buried in the browser menu.

So, my mother found three lines (as she thought she needed) and then the print button she thought I told her about.

The problem is that that is analogous to the functionality in the OS browser printing, found with “File | Print”.

So her emails were not printing properly. She presumed she was doing everything correctly based on what I’d told her, and it still wasn’t working.

It was understandably frustrating.

To print an email in HoTMaiL, you have to navigate as shown below.


Yes, behind the three dots indicating unimportance are some very important things.

Once I watched what she was doing, I immediately understood the issue. She wasn’t doing anything wrong! Even though she’d heard lines and not dots, the problem is with the interface.

  • Why is the computer not smart enough to print an email in a webmail programme? Or at least ask if you want the screen or the email printed?
  • Why is the “File | Print” functionality duplicated in the browser menu?
  • Why is there a nondescript menu in HoTMaiL that is nothing but three dots?
  • Why does HoTMaiL hide a really important function in a menu that is completely non-descript?
  • Why are there so many items that have three dots and/or three lines?
  • Why are three three different toolbars in a minimalistic interface? (Apple, Browser/Address, Outlook)

In short, this has been an exercise in pure frustration, and I’ve assured my mother that it’s really not her fault.

Because it isn’t.