UI and Zero Gravity Toilets

March 2011

As I’m building out the user interface for Cake Health, I’m constantly running into a problem that many people face when building an application: You know exactly how it works and how it’s supposed to function, but a first-time user is almost certainly going to be lost.

It’s so easy to say “I’ll use a wizard” or “I’ll add some helper text, or a tool tip” - but this is almost always the wrong decision. If you find yourself having to explain the interface, you’ve already lost.

One of my favorite scenes from “2001: A Space Odyssey” features the main character poring over a long list of instructions for using a Zero Gravity Toilet:

His pensive expression is presumably caused by the race between Nature’s increasingly insistent call and his rate of reading comprehension.

Similar instructions can be seen in other shots. It puts a subtle but poignant addition on the film’s theme that technology has advanced to a “magical” level and yet has also rendered its creators totally dependent on its sometimes flawed design.

Moral of the story: if you start to see instructions on your interface, stop. Pretend that understanding it is the only thing preventing your users from relieving themselves in zero gravity.