[Mailman-Developers] Mailman Usability

Terri Oda terri at zone12.com
Thu Mar 3 19:38:38 CET 2005

On Feb 16, 2005, at 8:54 AM, Tobias Eigen wrote:
> I'm sorry to say it, but Mailman's web interfaces are extremely 
> daunting and confusing.

As someone who's spent time documenting them... yes!  They're useable, 
and people can learn them, but I know I noticed things that simply 
don't make sense to a lot of users.  We've fixed the ones that came up 
a lot for me, but I'm sure there's others that I simply don't *see* any 
more because I'm so used to it.

> And we're only talking about the frontend (listinfo interface) here 
> now, not even the backend (admin interface) for list owners. The 
> backend is so incredibly complex and overwhelming that it has become a 
> serious stumbling block for us in offering a service that people will 
> actually use.

Oh yes!  I'm partway through documenting our existing admin interface 
and it's... hard.  I love the flexibility offered through mailman, but 
explaining it to people is horribly difficult, and that's a bad sign 
for useability.

My biggest problem with mailman's interfaces is that they're *really* 
designed to expose the underlying mechanics.  If you know how Mailman 
works, they're relatively easy to use.  I don't usually mind this for 
the admin interfaces because I work with list admins who actually are 
motivated to learn some about how the system works.  But a lot of list 
members (and list admins, just not mine) don't know how it works (and 
shouldn't need to know), and things fall apart then.  The biggest one 
is the seperate-logins-for-all-lists sort of stuff.  Many user don't 
understand (or care) that this reflects our (now seemingly flawed) 
architecture, and telling them "that's just the way it was designed" is 
kinda lame when it's clearly not the way it should work.

> Has anybody considered having a usability expert look at the Mailman 
> interfaces and redesign them so they make more sense from a user's 
> point of view?

This *is* a good idea, especially for mailman 3, where I think we'll be 
redesigning a lot of the interfaces.  It's harder with 2.1 because 
*changing* stuff can cause as many usability problems as it solves, but 
as I said, we've tweaked a few things since I started documenting, and 
minor changes can make things a whole lot easier sometimes.

So, any usability experts around who are willing to volunteer some time?

Okay, I'll admit it: I actually have some formal training in usability, 
but I'd rather someone with more if there's anyone out there.  
(hellooo?  If you don't want to admit it publicly, at least send me an 
email so I know who to ask?)

The gist of all usability studies is that the USERS are the one who 
should drive design of the interfaces.  Not programmers, not usability 
experts, not managers of the users, not documenters of the interface.  
And darned if we don't all have users. :)

So no excuses here -- we *can* do at least some simple usability 
studies.  Ask your users what they love/hate about the interface!  Ask 
them what "stupid" mistakes they make -- if lots of people do the same 
thing, it's probably our fault and not theirs.  If you've got physical 
access to your users, see if you can watch them do certain tasks and 
note what they do wrong, what takes a long time, etc.  Most of us *are* 
users as well as developers/admins/etc.  What do we find to be a pain 
in the neck?   Heck, what do we get asked over and over again?  (I used 
to have people ask me regularly "How do I unsubscribe" until we changed 
the button "Edit Options" to say "Unsubscribe or Edit Options")  What 
bugs are reported related to the interface?  (this includes bugs that 
aren't really bugs, but rather that the user couldn't find the right 
way to do things)  What behaves in ways that users don't expect?  What 
feature requests are made?

So, gathering usability data isn't impossible.  It's not going to be 
the best data ever, because there are much more scientific ways to go 
about this, but it *is* valid data and can be useful to us.

I think going through and gathering this data would be *really* helpful 
and could lead to a much better interface.  What would be the best way 
to gather this information?  Should we set up some pages in the wiki 
and make sure they're well known to users as a place to report this 
sort of thing?   The only problem with wikis is that people will see 
that something's been reported and not bother to duplicate, whereas we 
will want to know how *many* people are bothered by things.  Perhaps 
something with some quick voting-style "this bugs me too" option?    
How can we make it easy for people to report usability concerns?

Any thoughts on how to do this?  I'm willing to do a bit of 
coordination here to make sure this happens if people think we'll 
actually be able to use the information to make things better.


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