Piling in the office - the advantages and disadvantages

Recently I wrote about email overload and information removal from digital information space (for creating environment with less distractions). I came across this interesting photo of an office information overflow, which seams very real. Malone [1] wrote about advantages of piling or spatial management over hierarchies. The main strengths of piling are

  • less cognitive effort than categorizing
  • spatial awareness of information location and faster retrieval
  • reminding functionality of spatially managed information
  • keeping less information than with filing into hierarchies

But all these advantages disappear when there is too much information available. As in this office.


[1] Thomas W. Malone, How do people organize their desks? Implications for the design of office information systems (1983)

Placebo interfaces

Placebo is long known to have been used as drugs. But it is also known that it has effect in user interfaces!

I remembered about this slash.dot article when a friend told how he felt warm in the office and he was able to work in a T-shirt, untill he received an email about faulty heating system. Them he begun to feel cold :). So as long as he thought that the heating is working, he felt warm. It's all about the illusion of believing or controlling something.

The mentioned article lists some more examples:

  • In most elevators installed since the early 1990s, the 'close door' button has no effect. But we keep pressing them, because it makes us feel better :). The thing is that elevator's have this service mode or fire mode state in which the close button works, but most people do not know this.
  • Many office thermostats are dummies, designed to give workers the illusion of control. I HAVE ONE IN THE OFFICE AS WELL - and it's a dummy one :(.
  • More than 2,500 of the 3,250 "walk" buttons in New York intersections do nothing. Everything is controlled by computers. I'd say that here in Lancaster is the same. Even if I don't press the button the green light comes up at (to me) random times.

The problem is that some lights do switch the green "walk" light on when pressed and in some elevators the "close" button works. So how do we know when to press them and when don't? The best advice is to always press them. And if they don't work immediately, press them few more times. The desired effect will come sooner or later :). And we'll have a sense of control, which is good.

This brings up another human behavior. Most of people press the "walk" button on a street light, even if it was already pressed by someone before us. It's the same with "call" the elevator buttons. If there are three people waiting in front of it, probably all three of them pressed the button. It's like the elevator counts how many people are waiting :). And when elevator has two "call" buttons (with the up and down arrows, so it knows where we want to go and it uses the optimal time algorithm for everyone), most of people I know press both of them - just to be sure :)!

But who cares as long as the toilet door on the train closes when we press the button.

Off topic. Did you notice that most elevators have mirrors in and some also at every door. It all a out physiology, because if we look at something interesting (in this example we observe ourself), the time passes quicker!

Adioso - a natural way to search for cheap fligths

A while ago I wrote about Hipmunk's interesting interface and compared it to some other websites.

I found another approach to searching for cheap flights. Let's say we want to go on a trip from Ljubljana (a capital of Slovenia) and we want to know the cheapest possible way to travel from there with no destination in mind and we don't have any time restrictions either. The answer is ADIOSO.

To stick further with the above example we type in a search box: From Ljubljana to Anywhere. And we get these results:

Clicking on any of the found results (after deciding where we want to go), brings us to the next page:


We can now also find a cheapest round trip price based on number of days we could stay in London for the above example.

This is exactly what I missed in Hipmunk.


The dangerous Reply/Reply All/Reply list buttons of email clients

It happened a few times that I replied to the whole mailing list instead to sender only. Hopefully I didn't reveal any secret information or offend someone. The Goat unfortunately did not pay attention and his click on Reply All had unpleasant consequence.

How could these buttons be designed to prevent such mistakes?

Let's look at some on the most common interfaces:

  • Thunderbird figures if the email was sent to one or more people and even if the email was sent to the mailing list. The buttons are positioned one by one and have different icons on them. There is even a possibility to have all three together if an email was sent to more mailing lists or a mailing list and one or more individuals.  Buttons are a part of the email and From and To fields are close to buttons which allows user to see the context of the email while selecting appropriate buttons. Reply All and Reply list have also a drop down menu while Reply does not.

  • Apple Mail has buttons separated from email. As such email details are far away from buttons which are positioned on the top toolbar. As with TB, buttons are close together and have different icons on them: one left pointed arrow form Reply, two left pointed arrows for Reply All and a right pointed arrow for Forwarding.

  • Gmail has also incorporated possible actions to email (like TB). It prevents users to accidentally click on Reply All as it is hidden in a drop down menu. It can be accessed only by clicking on the arrow by Reply button.

  • Outlook 2003 interface is similar to that of Apple Mail. Buttons are separated from the email context and positioned on the top toolbar. As with the rest of examples, the Reply icons have a left pointed arrow while the forward button has a right pointed arrow. It distinguishes them by # of faces. The Reply All button has two faces instead of one.


There is certainly the trade off between showing all buttons as the interface allows it and hiding all less accessed buttons so the user is less likely to make a mistake. What is the best option? I like how TB knows that the email was sent to the mailing list (probably just by finding the [.*]). And I kind of like Gmail's drop down menu for security although I prefer all buttons visible. I definitely like the buttons to be incorporated with the email and I would like them to be incorporated in the email context even more! Like this for example:

Including the name of the person on the button and put buttons by the possible recipients' emails


Future interfaces of ATMs or Cashing Machines

Accordind to authors, they are more humanized (or humane), focused on a user, rather on hardware. A nice to see user-centred design.


The Future of Self-Service Banking from IDEO on Vimeo.