Simple Usability

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Recently, I tried to accomplish a simple task on a website which frustrated me because what should have been simple, was not. All I wanted to do was go to the Mix website and quickly find links to my sessions so I could post them here. Even I should be able to figure this out.

As a note, I’m using the Mix site as my illustration here, but I do it out of love and not mean spiritedness. Mix is my favorite conference, but its website…leaves something to be desired.

It seems particularly interesting that I’d run into this with the Mix site because the whole conference caters to a web design audience as well as web development. It just goes to show that even the best designers sometimes lose sight of what makes a user interface usable in the pursuit of cool flashy design. After all, designers often are trying to impress their designer friends when they should be creating a site that allows its audience to accomplish something?

Let’s take a look at my experience. Here’s the front page. Where do I start?


Notice that there’s no search feature (I already tried Google). Fine, so I click all sessions and get this timeline view. There’s a search button there but when I type “MVC” and hit GO, nothing happens. I also try my last name. No go.

Sessions - Windows Internet
Explorer Near the bottom, I click on SPEAKERS and find my name. I then try clicking on one of my sessions which is highlighted as a link, and nothing happens (it’s since been fixed). When I highlight the session, a pop-up which appears to have links shows up, but I can’t seem to move my mouse over it because it disappears before my mouse gets there.

Speakers - Windows Internet

After a moment of pondering, it occurs to me that maybe the video of my talk was not yet available at the time (it is now as I write this). It would have been nice if the site clearly indicated this, but instead, they were providing a link that went nowhere, giving me the impression that the video was available. Very confusing!

Now contrast that to this great post by Greg Duncan.

Mix 09 Quick Video Link List - Gregs Cool [Insert Clever Name] of the
Day - Windows Internet

Notice that it’s the height of simplicity. It’s a list of all sessions (after all, the list of sessions wasn’t all that long) with headings showing you which video format the session is available in. I would have loved to see something like this on the Mix site.

A quick F3 to bring up my browser’s search feature, type in MVC, and boom goes the dynamite, I’ve found my sessions and am happily dissecting my speaking performance in disgust.

Kudos to Greg for putting this together. The fact that he even needed to put this together is a major indication that there’s a problem over at the Mix site.

The problem here is that in the pursuit of cool design, designers sometimes confuse ornamentation with good design. The Mix site has all sorts of flashy elements showing off a mastery of jQuery. Whoopee! And typically, I love those elements because when done well, they can make a site more usable. But in this case, I much prefer Greg’s simpler approach.

There’s not that much data to display, so rather than chop it up into pages, he just puts it all in one page which allows me, the reader, to make use of the familiar tools built into my browser such as F3 to search. Bam! Done! I can move on now.

Keep that in mind next time as you put together your next great user interface. How can you make it simpler and leverage the tools already in the client?

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23 responses

  1. Avatar for Andrew Peters
    Andrew Peters March 24th, 2009

    Wasted soooo much time looking for the videos until I realized I could just use (or whatever it was).

  2. Avatar for Pete
    Pete March 24th, 2009

    I totally agree! I was scrambling Friday morning at MIX to download videos to watch on my zune on the 5 hour flight back, but it was next to impossible to figure out which videos were available. I had to select each slot. If I only wanted to check out the video of a particular session, the UI would have been fine, but since I wanted to download any videos I could, the UI was totally inappropriate.

  3. Avatar for Steve Burman
    Steve Burman March 24th, 2009

    The site also exposes another of my pet hates - filenames for download that give little indication of the content.
    T20F.wmv might mean something if I have a schedule in front of me - but if I am on my mobile or trying to re-watch the session months later, would it be too much trouble to give me the name of the session in the file. Even abbreviated would be ok.

  4. Avatar for Jon Galloway
    Jon Galloway March 24th, 2009

    Deja vu all over again.
    Same excuse, too. ;-)

  5. Avatar for haacked
    haacked March 24th, 2009

    BTW, I found that there's another site which has very nice search functionality. If only the main site linked to that instead.
    It even searches sessions from older Mix conferences!

  6. Avatar for Chad Moran
    Chad Moran March 24th, 2009

    I was talking to a few people around MIX and even with Tom Lee before MIX about how terrible the site is. I found it hard to navigate and the yellow text on colorful background at is near impossible to see.
    Would've been cool if they had a workshop or session that allowed people to re-design MIX10 site or something. Hopefully they learn and make the TechED/PDC sites a little better.

  7. Avatar for Lucas
    Lucas March 24th, 2009

    Note that the site was updated yesterday or today. There was no direct link to or (which seem to be the same, btw) that I could find. Those pages now include links to previous year's conferences and the videos RSS feed now includes enclosures. The video RSS link is no longer directly on the page though, only in the page's head tags.

  8. Avatar for Bryant Likes
    Bryant Likes March 24th, 2009

    How about for MIX10 instead of a 10k contest we have a design the session scheduler contest? The MIX team could expose all the data via a REST service and use OAuth to control the access. Then we could get a few choices on which interface we like best?
    In my experience, all the session browsers in the past have been horrible: TechEd, PDC, MIX, etc.

  9. Avatar for Mitch
    Mitch March 24th, 2009

    Totally agree! It took me forever to find the tiny play button to the left of the session description text.
    I would suggest one list with a tag cloud that would filter the list.

  10. Avatar for Eric
    Eric March 24th, 2009

    Yes I noticed this too, I used the Hanselman blog for a link to to browse through the various sessions, as the search is unusable :(.

  11. Avatar for Klaus
    Klaus March 24th, 2009

    I wondered about this too. The Mix site is not what I call a showcase of web development, but rather a reflection of Microsoft's infamous lack of beauty and usability.

  12. Avatar for Greg Duncan
    Greg Duncan March 24th, 2009

    I'm glad you like it Phil... :) It was a total quick and dirty hack because I was just to lazy to hunt and peck through the Mix site.
    As I wrote this utility (for the second time, the first doing the same for PDC08) I thought about how cool it would be if Microsoft were to provide a public supported "Conference API" (ConAPI?) Then let developers loose to provide UI's, mash-ups, alt access methods, etc. This would only enhance the materials for everyone, lowering the access bar (and make my life easier so I don't have to splunk the pages and guess at the API ;)
    Anyway, thanks for the kind words and I'm glad the post was of some use (I did it just for me, the fact that others like it just adds icing to the cake :)

  13. Avatar for vikram
    vikram March 24th, 2009

    I agree with you. I infact asked in question in the forum, after looking for sometime and not getting the answer.

  14. Avatar for Thomas Lewis
    Thomas Lewis March 24th, 2009

    Hi everyone, I am one of the folks who worked on the conference site. My day job is working on MIX Online (, the community site related to MIX. The last thing I want to do is come in and say "But you don't understand..." or "We had constraints and legacy code...", blah, blah, blah.
    I just want to say that we agree! We have had a lot of discussion here based on feedback as well as our own opinions and we plan to simplify the session browser next time around so that it will not only be easier to manage sessions before the event, but easily find and search (don't get me started on that...) for sessions as their recordings become available. We are also currently making some tweaks to make the sessions more discoverable located at
    I have forwarded the link to this post to other folks involved in the conference website as well. I appreciate that you all are taking the time to give your feedback in a constructive way. I really like some of the ideas that you all have come up with. A ConfAPI, now that would be awesome!

  15. Avatar for Pete
    Pete March 24th, 2009

    Speaking of usability, the gravatar algorithm is not supposed to be case sensitive. irritatedVowel and irritatedvowel should both resolve my gravatar, but they don't on this site.

  16. Avatar for Rob Conery
    Rob Conery March 24th, 2009

    You know you really should have talked to the team before posting this... I'm sure they could have helped you find your talk :p

  17. Avatar for Khaja Minhajuddin
    Khaja Minhajuddin March 24th, 2009

    I totally agree with you Phil, I was very frustrated by the Mix09 site, to the extent that I just let it go. Until Scott Hanselman blogged about his favorites in Mix ( that's when I found the .

  18. Avatar for aleemb
    aleemb March 24th, 2009

    The Mix 09 website is an atrocious piece of !@$#. As often happens, Google is a good fallback.
    All MVC sessions:
    mvc inurl:mix09 inurl:sessions

  19. Avatar for Kevin Lee
    Kevin Lee March 24th, 2009

    I couldn't agree more with this post. I thought it was confusing/difficult to find the content that I was interested in. I kept going to channel 9 to see if they had the content. It took me 10 minutes to realize that when I searched for content on the sessions page that the results were showing up at the bottom of the page. I kept expecting the "agenda" to change. What I really wanted was to type in MVC to find all of the MVC content that Mix09 had to offer. Finally Hanselman linked to which was what I was looking for. Then I spent the entire weekend refreshing the T44F page wondering where the video was.

  20. Avatar for Mike
    Mike March 24th, 2009

    Search is nice to have, but a tagcloud gives discoverability. After all, with search you can only find what you are looking for...

  21. Avatar for Michael Swanson
    Michael Swanson March 24th, 2009

    Regardless of how you've downloaded the videos, I've posted a simple batch file that will rename them to more meaningful names. And thank you for all of the feedback!

  22. Avatar for David Meyer
    David Meyer March 27th, 2009

    Amen!!! A couple friends of mine started a company for creating web sites. One is a web developer, the other is a web designer. (I am a software (including web) developer.) When we were talking, they asked me, "You at least know what the difference between a web developer and a web designer is, right?" Hahaha, design is all about graphics, layout, animation, maybe a little rudimentary client script, etc. The developer makes it do what it's supposed to do behind the scenes and may do some rudimentary layout stuff haha. The user interface sorta sits between the two, so both need to know how to make a good one. Since I'm not a designer, usability is usually my highest priority when I create a user interface. But I feel you when it comes to designers haha. Either they need someone else to oversee the interface or they need to learn more specifically about that themselves. The first priority of a web site should be that it fulfills its intended purpose well--which directly involves usability. Looking good in the process should be second. (Typical developer view, right? But designers seem to see it differently)

  23. Avatar for Matt Penner
    Matt Penner March 31st, 2009

    I had the chance to participate in a small feedback group during a lunch at MIX09. There was about 9 of us attendees there and they really wanted to know what we thought about the conferece, good and bad. By far, while we all really enjoyed the conference itself, the most negative feedback they got was the site. I'm glad that Microsoft and the MIX group are interested in hearing about all this. It really was a great conference and I'm definitely hoping to come next year. Thanks for the photo op Phil! :)