An example of physical user interface design -- machine tool operator panel with push buttons.

Usability: the importance of user feedback in user interface design

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An example of physical user interface design -- machine tool operator panel with push buttons.
By Elmschrat (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

The purpose of a user interface is to help the people using your product or website to meet their goals.

Your users will have specific goals in mind. If your interface doesn’t seem to support those goals they will look elsewhere if they have a choice (and if we’re talking about websites, they definitely have a choice!).

Another essential aspect of user interface design is supporting the user when either they make a mistake, or when an error occurs. A good user interface will get the user back on track in no time, just like the iPhone ‘home’ button. But not all Apple interface design is so clever in my view…

Error, or Omission?

Apple’s Macintosh computers are famous for their usability. But there’s one aspect of their physical design that’s always astonished me: no eject button on the DVD drive.

Don’t worry, I haven’t gone crazy. I know practically nobody uses optical media these days. I even debated whether I wanted to buy a MacBook Pro with a Superdrive, or forego traditional disks completely and plump for the MacBook Air.

In retrospect, I’m glad I bought the Pro – it is still a technically superior machine. And I can tell myself that carrying the extra weight around keeps me fit.

Magpie’s nest

I recently unearthed a bunch of backup CDs from way back, and seeing the condition they were now in, I decided to put them in my drive and make sure there wasn’t anything valuable on them that I didn’t have elsewhere. I knew it was only a matter of time until one got stuck, because that always seems to happen to me with Macs.

Superdrive, but super design?

The operating system controls the Mac Superdrive, much like a PC. But if the driver or OS encounters a problem on a PC, you still have a physical fallback – a simple eject button on the device itself. I’ve employed this technique without fail on my PCs for years, because frankly nobody wants to depend solely upon Windows.

On any Mac that’s still retro enough to be graced with an optical drive though, you won’t see any sign of an eject button. Macs have never had eject buttons on removable media drives for as long as I can remember.

Thinking back to my high-school years reminds me of the Macintosh Classic – it was a small beige box with a tiny black and white screen and a 3.5 inch slot on the front of it. That was where you inserted your floppy disks, and of course, there was no eject button there either.

MacBook Pros do have a tiny eject button hidden away in a hole that can only be accessed by removing the drive from your machine and poking a paperclip into it. I’m pretty certain nobody wants to do that so I won’t classify that as an eject button from a usability perspective.

They also have an eject button on the keyboard, but again, the OS controls this too. This means if something goes screwy with your software this button is only good for taking out your frustration on. And that was the situation I found myself in.

Form and function

It doesn’t surprise me that Apple opted for appearance over functionality – after all, Steve Jobs famously made it clear that he didn’t believe that Macs should have cursor keys. I can see his point about keeping the Mac as his own proprietary vision, but I for one would not be writing computer programs (or anything else, for that matter) on a keyboard without arrow keys.

Sometimes, you have to recognise the value of an idea that was not your own, and sometimes you have to accept that you’ve made a bad decision and reverse it. There’s almost half a million results on Google for “mac force eject cd“. Creating great user interfaces is about seeking out user feedback and folding it into the next design iteration.

The horse has bolted

I’m not seriously expecting Apple to bother adding an eject button to their Superdrives now, because the technology is on the way out anyway.

But I do wonder whether anybody ever considered adding a hardware eject button, or whether some brave soul suggested it but was overruled by Jobs. Great design solves problems after all, instead of creating them.

Catch me if you can

Having a safety net is important. And the point remains that having something reliable and predictable to fall back on is essential in great user interface design.

I’m not an iPhone owner. I think they’re great, but overhyped. And now they’re more abundant in the universe than Hydrogen they’ve completely lost their appeal to me. 

But the thing I love most about them is the ‘home’ button. It has a reassuring ‘clicky’ feel to it, and I feel confident it’ll always respond to being pressed.

This is my failsafe, my safety net, and I feel comfortable in the knowledge that if I get lost I always have a shortcut that leads me straight home.

A user interface should inspire confidence in the user. It should always offer them an escape route if things go wrong. I had to restart my Mac to get the disk out. A tiny recessed button could’ve averted this desperate situation quite easily. (Macs don’t need restarting very often after all).

Mac force eject CD

And if you found this post because you’re suffering from the same problem I had, this step-by-step troubleshooting guide runs through the things you can try to get your machine to relinquish your precious shiny circle.