Friday, October 25, 2019

Webpage animation, a rant

Once upon a time, print and pictures didn't move until we moved them by turning the page of a book or rolling the scroll. We could take as long as we wanted to ponder a line of text, or appreciate the beauty in a drawing.

They are unchanging in another context. There is a cave painting in Borneo that has been dated to 40,000 years old. There are Egyptian papyrus documents 4,000 years old. The drawing we can plainly see is a bull, and while we can read the scroll, the meanings may escape us. Sometimes it was even more permanent, as in, carved into a rock, like this. The paint might fade, but the carving will be there for the better part of eternity.

Then someone figured out that if you flash slightly different images 24 times a second before our eyes, the image will appear to move. Thus the motion picture industry was born. It was the first major  advance in telling stories after the printing press. Pity that it's devolved into animating comic books.

Now the internet. All my life science fiction talked about systems like the internet, and here it is. On the whole, it's much better than the long promised flying cars. And before you think I'm cranky about the concept, not at all, I think its one of the most amazing things humans have created. Pity about parts of it devolving into a rage machine.

But lets go back to movies for a moment. Imagine a scene, any scene. The camera is still or moves slowly. Things happen in front of the camera. We follow the story. We have a view on a world, but we don't control how long we can see it. The director controls that. The scene plays out and there is a cut to another scene. We can hit the pause button and it freezes, but we can't let the scene play out more, unless it's in the deleted scenes or a director's cut version.

It used to be that there was a brief pause between scenes. Not anymore. Scenes used to last longer. Over the history of cinema shot length has declined from about 12 seconds to less than 3, on average. (Source.) The idea was to immerse the audience in the action, to make them feel more excited by the quick cuts. It annoys me. Every cut, I have to figure out who we are watching, and how it connects with the previous scene. All too often what we're watching isn't interesting, and isn't rationally connected with the previous scene, and the quick cuts just induce a sense of thrashing around. Don't get me started on the sound volume in theatres.

Now to the internet. The intent of a web page is to show the audience some content they want. It could be anything. As an example, information about a restaurant you're thinking about going to. You expect a web page, or a series of web pages to show you the menu, the hours it's open, contact information for reservations if it does that, the address and probably a map and maybe even directions from wherever you are. It wouldn't be a surprise to see photos of the place or the food. There might be a page with reviewer's comments. If there's a particular hook to the restaurant, they might have a page about that, such the history of it, that it's vegan or gluten free, that the chef has specific certifications or skills, or whatever.

We've developed standards about how these are to be laid out according to readability studies. North Americans read text top to bottom, from left to right, and have been doing so for centuries. It follows that the first place readers will look at a web page is the top left corner, and they will expect to see some choices to lead them to what they want to know. Is it still open? What is the daily special? What is the exact address? Whatever.

Unfortunately, some people think that's boring. Old fashioned, old school. Just old. New web technologies allow the designers to slide pages up, down, sideways, whatever and whenever they think is amusing. In spite of browser controls to turn them off, there are popups which is almost always advertising. It's enraging.

So for example, not that I want to pick on Repsol, but it's what inspired this blog. I was looking at their web page to see what the hours of the swim meet are this weekend. Happily enough it was on the landing page, and reasonably so. They were warning patrons that parking might be limited. The text went off the bottom of the screen, but that's fine, scrolling down is an expected thing. Except as I did that and my eyes were focussing on the hours, the page slid sideways and I was looking at something I didn't want. I had to find the control to move it back. Refocus, and it moved again. Several times. Even with good coffee and a purring cat on my lap, my blood pressure was going up.

There are so many examples I can't even begin to name them. If you use the internet you see it. Advertising blocking part of the page, and then it moves, dragging the text with it. Scrolling that behaves counter-intuitively. The little scroll button on the side of the page (I'm looking at YOU, Apple) that changes size and goes away while I try to get the mouse on it to drag down to see the bottom of the list. Never to be sufficiently damned pop ups.

Is it too much to ask for a screen to stay still while I try to figure out an interface that some child thinks is cool? I once lost coveted seats on a flight to UK because I couldn't figure out the user interface before the selection time expired. The designers seem to put just about anything in front of usability, leading to garish colours, obscure controls, and baffling icons.

Icons, for crying out loud. I know, through bitter experience that the little 3.5 inch floppy icon is the save icon. How anyone that is not a computer geek or born after the late 90's is supposed to know that means save, and why, is beyond me.

The local library changed it's web page, and I'm looking for the search field. That's something pretty fundamental. You have to click on an icon (that is in the top right corner) to see the field to type your search text. How did a magnifying glass become the icon for search? They don't even have text popup as you hover over an icon to find out what it is. Beside it they have a circle balanced on top of a semi-circle. I had no idea what that meant. It turns out to be how to log in and change your profile. I wouldn't be surprised to find it's a link to a Star Wars event they are promoting.

Pages resizing as they load makes me nuts. When I see the text that came up on a page I navigated to, I want to read it. Then it moves because an image loaded. Or there's a popup asking if they can send me notifications. (Not only no, but FUCK NO!) If it's a long complicated page, then be smart enough to load the header, and maybe whatever text can be loaded because the server knows it won't move. If it's slow, add a little text field showing that the load is in progress, then show me the whole thing. Don't change it while I'm trying to read it.

For centuries text has been dark ink on a light background. Why would anyone think that anything else is a good idea? Sooner or later I'm going to be forced to upgrade to apps and an operating system that will give me dark mode. White text on a black background. WTF??!! I will be forced to go through and figure out how to turn that off, if they allow it. It might be the thing that drives me from the Apple ecosystem for good. Unless, wait, it's a cool thing and all the designers are doing it.

This making a change for the sake of change because people might be bored is making me crazy. I've probably barely figured out the last interface. I had to stop using Evernote because they kept changing the interface. One day I wanted to add a note, and couldn't figure out how to do it. This is the simplest and most fundamental thing users could want to do, and the whole reason for the app. They had changed the icons and moved them around, and called it a refresh. Screw them. I copied a few of the important notes into another app and deleted it.

And Facebook, you knew this one was coming. Let's not even talk about privacy concerns. It shows us something different every time we look at it. I frequently see something put up by one of my friends and will want to read it, but don't have time, or I know I'll want to comment and want to use a real keyboard. Next time I look, it's gone. Scroll up and down, and it's not there. I have to remember who posted it, which is sometimes harder than you might think, and go look at their wall.

How hard can this be? I want to see what my friends post, either original content or a shared post. All of it. I want it in strict chronological order. I'd rather not see advertising in between, but it's ok, I can easily  ignore it. If I've commented on a post, then seeing when other of my friends comment on it is fine, and maybe seeing if people other than my friends have commented.

That way I can start at the top, read down, and as soon as I see a post that I've seen, I know I can stop.  A control to show, in the same order, the posts that I've commented on, that have further comments is fine. This memories thing is going to be the death of me. I got all excited about something once, and then realized it was from several years ago. Why would you mix old stale data with the new stuff?

Then there's the stories on Facebook and Instagram. Some of them are amusing, but mostly I've stopped watching them, even though I like the people involved. The crime is that they scroll before I'm done. Then I have to scroll back. They don't even scroll at a set time, at least I don't think so. If there are more stories cued up, they scroll faster. It's worse if there's text. I'm conditioned to read text. I hate scrolling back.

Maybe I've crossed the line from curmudgeon to geezer, and outright decrepit will be happening soon. I used to laugh at the memes where the grandparent asks the kid to explain 'the google' again. Well, lots of my buddies my age are grandparents, and there's been a few times I've had someone younger than me explain things. (Thank you Michelle for explaining some of the subtleties around Google apps, and sharing folders. For a while the Google photos folder thing was enraging because the process for adding a folder was stupidly counter-intuitive. You had to add a photo to the library before you could create a folder to put it in. It's better now.)

And videos, you knew I was going there. For amusement, they're fine. YouTube is awesome. Cat videos are one of humanities great creations. But how to videos usually make me nuts. They start with a farcical greeting. "What's up blah blah blah." There is an importunity to click on the subscribe button, and related advertising. Then there's a stock intro advertising themselves or their lack of video editing skills. Then they'll talk about what they're going to talk about. Then, maybe, they'll get into it, taking their own sweet time, talking way too much, and usually way too slowly. I can scrub through text, passing over what I already know, the steps I've already done, and stop at the place I need to be for what I want. There is no easy way to do that in a video. And commercials within the video. Grr. The advantage of a well written book is obvious. The instructions stay there, numbered, in order. If it's a book you own you can check them off. Same with diagrams, you can refer back and forth to make sure you've got the wires hooked up right before you turn the power back on.

As always, some soothing photos for you.

Lynx of the Day
Yes, I assure you, there is a Lynx in there. It was watching me.

Deadwood of the Day

Scavenger Photo

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