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7th Floor Media has been thinking seriously about interactive digital media for culture and education for over 20 years. Here on our much less formal blog, staff discuss discoveries and issues that arise from the fascinating work they do. This is 7FM "outside the box," where ideas and opinions are set free.

You are invited - nay, encouraged - to participate in the conversation.

Proof that Christmas fails all usability standards

By Mo Goshinmon on December 11th, 2009

Or, Look out! This season has no “off” button.

After experiencing many Christmases while working in the field of usability, it is perhaps inevitable that I eventually developed the following theory:

If Christmas was a website, it would fail to meet most interface usability standards.

Oh sure, Christmas-as-a-website would look great on the surface. But right off the start there would be problems with integrity (who’s really behind this thing?) and overuse of flashy attract items.  There would be massive functional problems – for example, exiting the site would not be allowed. The user might try to escape by way of the throbbing and vibrantly coloured shopping cart, but this would actually be a bottomless pit powered by the barely legal spiral descent-to-hell algorithm.

Look out! This season has no "off" button.

Look out! This season has no "off" button.

When my theory met with guffaws at the office, I decided to  test it out, and this being a university environment I was encouraged to apply myself whole-heartedly to my research in the interest of establishing the facts.  So I took an hour or so and did just that.

Naturally, I  chose to employ the much respected set of 10 Usability Heuristics produced and promoted by usability guru Jakob Nielsen, along with a Christmas interface represented by a regular Canadian family of three (mother, father and child) who are purely fictional in fact while being painfully recognizable in spirit.  Then I made a chart. If a particular interface element satisfied the Neilsen heuristic, I gave it a pass. If it failed, I gave it a fail.

My theory was proved to be more than just “viable,” as the fancy university phrase goes – nay, it is at least 110 percent correct. Clearly illustrated by the chart below, the Christmas-as-a-website interface fails to respect standard usability principles on pretty much every single level there is.

I wish you all a very merry Christmas, filled with Aunt Martha’s pies, exuberant activities and subsequent compensating behaviours, and joyful usability failures of all kinds to be remembered fondly for years to come.

The (not yet) internationally famous chart that proves

Christmas fails all usability standards


(by Jakob Nielsen, the famous usability guru)

Christmas interface elements

(includes regular family of three; Anne and Joe and their little daughter Milly, with special visits to Aunt Martha and Santa Claus)

1. Visibility of system status

The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.

Anne: Should we bring something to Aunt Martha’s or not?

Joe: I don’t know. D’you think she got us anything?

Anne: I have no idea.

Joe: Maybe if we just bring a bottle of wine along or something…

Anne: But that’ll look so cheap.

Joe: You wanna talk cheap, isn’t that Christmas cake your mother gave us the same one we gave her last year?

2. Match between system and the real world

The system should speak the users’ language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.

Anne: G’night sweetheart. Remember to listen for the sound of tiny reindeer feet on the roof tonight!

Milly: G’night Mommy. Why will there be reindeer on the roof?

Anne: These are special flying reindeer that carry thousands, no, millions, of tons of toys, and Santa – who’s no lightweight himself – in a special sleigh, dashing through the starry night sky, going from house to house where…

Milly: Really?

3. User control and freedom

Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked “emergency exit” to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.

Anne: Joe, what’s this VISA charge for a “Romantic Gift Basket?” I don’t recall opening anything like that…

Joe: Oh, um, that’s nothing. Just something I, um, returned to the store.

Anne: Returned to the store? Well, I don’t see a credit here.

Joe: Huh. That’s strange. Must be a mistake of some kind. Yeah, that’s it.

4. Consistency and standards

Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform conventions.

Milly: There’s a tag on this one!

Anne: That’s right, honey. It says, Love from Santa.

Milly: What about this one?

Anne: Love from Old St. Nick

Milly: And this one?

Anne: Love from Mommy and Daddy

5. Error prevention

Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action.

Joe: I can’t eat another bite, Aunt Martha. Got to watch my figure, heh heh.

Aunt Martha: But what about dessert? I baked a pecan pie, because I know that’s your favorite.

Anne: Actually, Joe’s doctor told him he’d better cut back on the pie for awhile.

Joe: Ha, ha! Of course she didn’t mean it to apply to the holiday season, Anne. That would be crazy. Bring it on, Aunt Martha!

6. Recognition rather than recall

Minimize the user’s memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.

Anne: It’s a… it’s a… Why, it’s a pair of earrings! Thank you Joe darling! But wait a minute. These aren’t earrings… they’re… buttons?!

Joe: Well, yeah, of course. Didn’t you keep saying you liked “small precious things”?

Anne: Yes, but I meant –

Joe: Well these are small.

Anne: So, what are you saying? It’s okay to remember “small” and forget “precious”? Is that what you’re saying, Joe?

7. Flexibility and efficiency of use

Accelerators — unseen by the novice user — may often speed up the interaction for the expert user such that the system can cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. Allow users to tailor frequent actions.

Joe: Any more of those shortbread cookies?

Anne: What?! I baked fourteen sheets of cookies and there aren’t any left?!

Joe: They were great. Can you bake a few more?

Anne: But I still have the turkey and all the side dishes –

Joe: Just a couple of dozen would be fine. I don’t want you to spend hours slaving over them.

8. Aesthetic and minimalist design

Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.

Santa: And what do you want for Christmas, little girl?

Milly: I want a big, furry, blue… a big… I want a big bunny that’s a bear with a backpack like my friend Donny has but ‘cept I want a pink one with a crown like a elf princess from wonderland. And with money in it.

Santa: I see.

9. Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors

Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.

Joe: I can’t believe it. I can’t fit into these pants either. What’s going on? Are you running the dryer on Extra Hot?

Anne: You’re fat, Joe. I told you to quit it with the pie.

Joe: Geez, what am I gonna do?

Anne: Run naked through the snow, Joe. Maybe next time you’ll listen to your doctor’s advice.

10. Help and documentation

Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user’s task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.

Joe: I really don’t understand your mother sometimes.

Milly: Me either.

Joe: That woman should come with an instruction manual.

Milly: What’s a ‘stuction annual, Daddy?

Joe: Never mind, Milly. Here, let’s get ourselves another bowl of that leftover trifle.

Milly: But Mommy said –

Joe: Mommy says all kinds of things. But where is it written that a man should go hungry at Christmas time?

Milly: I dunno, Daddy.


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