All posts by Jason Ward

Uncharted UI Hazards

On the night of November 29th, the 65-foot sailboat Team Vestas Wind slammed into a reef at 19 knots (a significant speed in a boat) in a remote part of the Indian Ocean.

They were on their way from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi, along with 6 other boats, in the second leg of the Volvo Ocean Race — a round-the-world sailboat race and one of the toughest sporting events in the world.

How did this happen? These were professionals — some of the best sailors in the world. The obvious answers are that either the charts were inaccurate or the boat’s crew committed “human error”. The consensus in the sailing world attributes the accident to human error. A recent New Yorker article sums it up:

“At a press conference on Monday, Team Vestas admitted that the crash appears to have been caused by ‘a simple human error’: the navigator, Wouter Verbraak, did not zoom in enough on his charts. Race organizers have pointed out that it was a high-stress situation caused by approaching bad weather.”

At the risk of reviving an age-old discussion, the navigator’s (in)action may have failed the crew, but the charting software’s user interface clearly contributed to the wreck.

Continue reading Uncharted UI Hazards

Tripped Up

I have an interesting anecdote about the persistence of data, the ramifications of a poor UI, and the unintended consequences of things talking to other things on one’s behalf.

I recently traveled from the Bay Area to Arizona on Southwest Airlines. The day before my flight, I received a flight confirmation email – but it came from a completely unrelated airline, and for travel dates that were slightly different from the days I was supposed to be traveling.

I confess, I momentarily freaked out. I hadn’t made the reservations myself, but I was pretty sure this couldn’t be right. Upon closer inspection, it became clear that this was a reservation for “Mary” – someone I didn’t know – who was traveling between cities on the other side of the country.

So, I emailed Mary to let her know what happened (her email address was on the confirmation), and suggested that perhaps she should contact the airline.

My involvement in this bogus trip didn’t stop there. The information in the reservation email propagated to a number of services, and they all came rushing to help me:

  • TripIt automatically scanned my Gmail account and generated an itinerary for Mary’s flight – a flight I wasn’t taking – which it emailed to me.
  • TripIt also let my network know about the trip.
  • Google started sending me notifications when Mary’s flight was delayed.
  • While I was in Arizona, Google Now began providing me cards of interesting things to do – on the opposite side of the country – based on Mary’s destination. This seemed particularly odd. Google Now should have known where I was based on my phone’s location.

Continue reading Tripped Up

A Handsome Virgin, Lacking Experience



There is a lot of chatter about the Virgin America beta site, lauding its delightfulness, simplicity, and ease of use. It is an immediate marketing success. People are excited and tweeting about it.

It has an up-to-date look that’s responsive (a first for airline booking) and designed from the ground up to play well with mobile. Its playful, simplified visual design makes it appear fun and easy to use. Virgin touts the speed of booking flights because you make one decision at a time.

And yet…

The process is very linear, designed to lead you through each step in a strict sequence. If you stick to the script and proceed along (the designers’) optimal path, then it is easy and straightforward to book a flight. But, if you stray from that path — because you want to change your return date, for example – usability quickly diminishes. Whenever I change an earlier selection, I have to repeat all of the steps from that point on – work that I’ve already done once. And it’s not especially clear where I am or what I can do – feedback fades off the screen too quickly; the lengthy scroll, back arrow, and occasional ‘X’ control seem at odds with each other.
Continue reading A Handsome Virgin, Lacking Experience

Subscribing to a Better UI?

An image from the Slate+ marketing page.
An image from the Slate+ marketing page.

We here at Swim are fans of Slate content, both the web-based magazine and podcasts (although we are less enamored with last year’s site redesign).

Recently, Slate rolled out Slate+, a subscription-based enhancement to the standard Slate experience. It promises bonus content, discounts on Slate merchandise and events, early access to big stories – all pretty standard fare for “premium” subscription features.

Here’s what’s interesting though –  they are also promoting specific UI behaviors as premium subscription features (see image above and the marketing web page
Continue reading Subscribing to a Better UI?