Select Box Usability Madness | May 30, 2006

Select boxes are difficult to use at the best of times, especially when you have to navigate down a very long list, such as a list of countries. Luckily, information architects normally order their lists alphabetically. This helps support known-item searching, as you can quickly scroll down to the entries starting with the same letter as the one you’re looking for, making things easier to find.

I was signing up for a new AIM account recently, and had to fill in my country details. This was the first usability gotcha in my mind as I really couldn’t see why an IM service would need to know which country I’m from. However I let that one slide as a clicked on the select box, and was presented by the following screen.

Screenshot of a select box showing the United States, Caneda and then a list of countries is an almost alphabetical order

I’m based in England, which is part of Great Britain as well as the United Kingdom. However most websites use the United Kingdom, so this was the label I was searching for.

Some companies with a large UK user-base add a United Kingdom option near the top of the list, usually below the United States. This makes a lot of sense as there is no point forcing people to scroll down a long list of options, if the majority of visitors are from one or two countries. I did a quick scan for the United Kingdom at the top of the list, but couldn’t see the option, so assumed the user base was more diverse.

As a side note, it would be a nice usability touch if sites checked your IP address, made an educated guess at your location, and displayed this as the first option. Just a thought!

If this was a short list, I’d probably scroll down to the entries starting with my letter of choice. However as this was a long list, many people would type the first letter of the word they are looking for and be taken to that point in the list. I dutifully typed in “U” and expected to be deposited somewhere near the United Kingdom option. This is where things started to get a little confusing.

Screenshot of a select box showing countries starting with the letter U. United Kingdom is not there.

As you can see from the image, there was no United Kingdom option. Knowing that some people list it as Great Britain, I typed in “G” to see if was there. After a quick scan I couldn’t see Great Britain, but I did notice a listing for the United Kingdom.

Select box showing United Kingdom listed where Great Britain should be alphabetically.

You may think this was a small issue, as I did end up finding my country. However the whole process left me feeling a little confused, annoyed and mistrustful of the application.

I was expecting an alphabetically ordered list, and in most places that’s exactly what I had. However the UK was in the alphabetical position of Great Britain, despite being listed as the United Kingdom. I was happy to stuggle through, but that wouldn’t be the case for everybody.

Looking down the list, I noticed a lot of similarly annoying anomalies. For instance, in the first screenshot you’ll notice that the United Arab Emirates (commonly known as the UAE) is listed in the alphabetical position for Arab. Similarly the Netherlands (or Dutch) Antilles are listed in the position of just Antilles. In the second screenshot, Saint Vincent is listed in the “V” position, and in the third screenshot, Micronesia is listed under “F” for Federated States of Micronesia.

It looks like somebody has tried to be extremely clever with the naming convention on this list and ended up making the whole thing confusing for everybody.

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A Sad Farewell to the Web Standards Awards | May 30, 2006

A few years ago, when standards based sites were still a novelty, I decided to document all the well designed sites I could find. This was partly for my own benefit as design inspiration, and partly as a means to show fellow developers that well designed CSS sites were a possibility. That list is still in existence, and can be found in the links section of my site. Looking at the list now, many of the original sites look old and dated, but at the time, they were cutting edge.

The CSS Zen Garden had recently launched, and helped prove that CSS sites need not be dull. However, while this provided the inspiration needed for forward thinking designers, managers and clients were a much harder sell. These were the days when tableless sites felt like a risk, and decision makers needed to be convinced that other companies were embracing web standards and creating beautiful looking sites.

What I wanted to do was set up some kind of CSS showcase, highlighting the best designs around. Not experimental designs such as those found in the Zen Garden, but real world designs being used in the wild. However time is always the enemy of invention, and I never managed to get my idea off the ground. This is why I was excited when a young designer from Sweden sent me a link to a project he was working on called the Web Standards Awards. The design was super-sexy, and the fact that something was already in the works meant that I didn’t have to do it myself.

Every few weeks I would bug Johan to see how the project was progressing, but like most good web developers, he was far too busy on client work. After about three months of me hassling him, Johan admitted that he was too busy to complete the project and was considering dropping it. At the same time, Cameron Adams had blogged about the need for a web design awards site, so I told him about the WSA and suggested that the pair of us helped Johan out to get the site up and running.

The designs and CSS templates were already set, so while Cameron wrote the site copy, I knocked together a quick Movable Type blog to power the site. This took a few weeks to organise, and by the time we were ready to launch, a new site called the CSS Vault had appeared. Still, despite not being the first CSS showcase site out there, we were the first, and to my knowledge, the only awards site around.

When we started, myself, Cameron and Johan would award one site a week, and then, at the end of the month, our team of judges would vote for the best one. This process worked well for around six months, but after a while I started to run out of steam. I had no problem finding sites to award, as standards based design had really started to take off. My problem was finding the time to go through all the suggested sites and pick a winner. I struggled on with my workload, but after a while just had to give up. I passed the baton onto Andy Clarke, and retired to become a monthly judge.

The web standards awards ticked along nicely for another 12 months, but as the other weekly judges workloads increased, the quantity of awards decreased. We tried to get some fresh blood on-board, but everybody we approached were too busy with their jobs, blogs and other commitments. After much debate, we came to the sad, but inevitable conclusion that it was time to close the doors on the WSA.

I think Cameron final post to the site sums up our collective feelings.

Web design has come a long way in the two short years that the Web Standards Awards have been running. When we published our very first award (The 85th PGA Championship) we had to search high and low for sites that could meet our high expectations of both design and coding. Since then we’ve awarded exactly 99 other sites that have carried on that same spirit of technical and aesthetic achievement that we set out to highlight.

Now we’ve arrived at a situation where beautiful sites with beautiful code are being produced by the hundreds; every month, every week, every day. It’s no longer a myth that you can produce a stunning site with Web Standards, and the most that our team can hope for is that the Web Standards Awards played at least a tiny part in helping to dispel that fallacy.

Effect or not, we feel that our mission is complete, that Standards have now ensured their rightful place in the process of Web design. So, it’s time to hang up our spurs and focus our attention where it’s needed most.

As a testament to the work of the pioneers who we applauded, this site will remain open as a record of 100 sites that helped shape a period in the Internet’s development that we were — and still are — excited to be a part of.

Thanks for watching…

It’s sad to see the WSA go, but it was better to close it now than continue to watch it wither on the vine. I’d just like take this oppertunity to thank my fellow judges, visitors, and most importantly, award winners, for making the site possible.

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MacBook | May 17, 2006

So this is the announcement I’ve been waiting for. Apple have just launched their iBook replacement, imaginatively dubbed the MacBook.


My iBook is only 18 months old, but I’ve wanted to replace it for a while now. I’m happy with the speed, but I’m seriously running out of disk space. The other issue is size and screen real estate. The 12” iMac is a great size as its extremely portable. However I’m getting just frustrated with the tiny screen.

I have thought about getting a 15” MacBook Pro, but I’m concerned that it’s slightly too large. So I’ve been waiting to see if the rumors of a 13” MacBook were true, and it looks like they were. I know an extra inch may not seem like much, but as my girlfriend says, it makes all the difference (she uses the laptop as well!). I’ve not seen them in the flesh yet, but the pictures look pretty cool, and I really like the black version.

The specs of the MacBook are pretty close to that of the pro version. The main issues for me are the integrated video RAM (no good for games), shiny screen (no good for using outside) and the lack of a backlit keyboard. However apart from that, it stands up pretty well. I’m probably going to wait till the Apple store gets some stock in so I can do a side by side comparison, but I’m pretty impressed.

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Ajax Training in Manchester | May 15, 2006

If you happen to be in the North of England on the 26th May, and are interested in learning about Ajax, why not come along to our workshop? We still have a couple of places left so would love to see you there. The workshop will be led by our very own Jeremy Keith and there will be a special guest appearance from the infamous Brothercake.

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Free WiFi | May 3, 2006

I think its probably due to the number of free hotspots in Brighton, and more recently in Austin, but I really object to paying for WiFi. There is something about the lack of wires that has made companies want to commoditize it and sell it as a premium service. I could understand a few years ago when wireless enabled laptops were rare and the base stations were relatively expensive. However hardware prices have tumbled in the last few years and WiFi cards are now ubiquitous.

The thing that I really don’t get is places that have free wired connections but expect you to pay for WiFi. A case in point. I’m currently writing this in the BA club lounge at Heathrow terminal one. Next to me is a bank of 40+ computers, all free to use. To provide this, BA have had to buy the computer equipment, install a network and set up a pipe. BA have gone to great expense to provide this as a value-added service to their business customers, so why on earth are they charging for WiFi?

The infrastructure is already there. I’m even doing them a favor by providing my own equipment. What is it about the lack of wires that turns something from a value added service into an overpriced commodity? With so many business travelers owning their own laptop, surely it would make more sense to provide the WiFi for free and charge for the use of the computers?

I don’t get it!

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