Material Design: Why the Floating Action Button is bad UX design

I HIGHLIGHTED so many passages in this brief, well-focused design argument, it’s almost embarrassing. Read it (it takes about three minutes), and you’ll wear out your virtual highlighter, too:

Material Design is a design language introduced by Google a year ago, and represents the company’s bold attempt at creating a unified user experience across all devices and platforms. It’s marked with bold colours, a liberal but principled use of shadows to indicate UI layers, and smooth animations that provide a pretty pretty user experience on Android (and some Google apps on iOS).

One thing about Material Design, however, has bugged me ever since it was introduced last year: Floating Action Buttons.

Floating Action Button | Image credit: Google

FABs are circular buttons that float above the UI and are “used for a promoted action,” according to Google. They act as call to action buttons, meant to represent the single action users perform the most on that particular screen.

And because of the bold visual style of Material Design, FABs are strikingly hard to ignore and stand out — and herein lies the problem.

While FABs seem to provide good UX in ideal conditions, in actual practice, widespread adoption of FABs might be detrimental to the overall UX of the app. Here are some reasons why.

Material Design: Why the Floating Action Button is bad UX design by Teo Yu Siang

Designer Blindness

AFTER USING the web for twenty years, and software for an additional ten, I’ve come to believe that I suffer from an affliction which I will hereby call “designer blindness.”

Put simply, if an interface is poorly designed, I will not see the data I looked for, even if it is right there on the page.

On a poorly designed table, I don’t find the column containing the answer I sought.

On a poorly designed interface, I don’t push the right buttons.

On a poorly designed social sharing site, I delete my data when I mean to save it, because the Delete button is in the place most designers put a Save button.

This doesn’t happen to everyone, which is why I call it an affliction. Indeed, it happens to almost no one.

My non-designer friends and family seem quite capable of using appallingly designed (and even undesigned) sites and applications. Somehow they just muddle through without pushing the button that erases their work.

In fact, the less concerned with aesthetics and usability these friends and family members are, the more easily they navigate sites and applications I can’t make head nor hair of.

Like the ex-girlfriend who mastered Ebay.

Or the colleagues who practically live in Microsoft Excel, an application I still cannot use. There are tabs on the bottom, way below the fold, way past where the data stops? And I’m supposed to scroll a blank page until I find those tabs? It’s easy for most people, but it never occurs to me no matter how often I open an Excel document. I could open a thousand Excel documents and still never think to scroll past a wall of empty rows to see if, hidden beneath them, there is a tab I need to click. Just doesn’t occur to me. Because, design.

It’s not a visual or mathematical disability. If something is well designed, I can generally use it immediately. It’s the logic of design that trips me up.

I recognize that I’m an edge case—although I bet I’m not the only designer who feels this way. Give me something that is well designed, and I will master it, teach others about it, and unconsciously steal my next five original ideas from it. Give me something poorly designed, something that works for most people, and I’ll drive a tank into an orphanage.

Not that I’m a great designer. I wouldn’t even call myself a good designer. I’m just good enough to get messed up by bad design.

Yet you won’t hear me complain about my designer blindness.

See, divorce is a terrible thing, but if you have a kid, it’s all worth it. The heartache, the anger, the loss of income and self-esteem, the feeling that no matter what you say or do, you are going to be someone else’s monster forever—all the unbearable burdens of failed love and a broken family are worth it if, before that love failed, it brought a wonderful child to this world.

For my daughter I would suffer through a thousand divorces, a million uncomfortable phone calls, a trillion emotionally fraught text messages.

And how I feel about my kid is how I also feel about my design affliction. The pain of being unable to use what works for other folks is more than compensated for by the joy of recognizing great design when I see it—and the pleasure of striving to emulate that greatness, no matter how badly I fail every time.

Broken All the Way Down: Seeking Basic Information from Southwest Airlines

I was taking my daughter to Laguardia Airport to meet her mom, who would then take the girl on to Chicago for a few days’ holiday-time visit. Laguardia is a large airport, with many terminals, and as I hadn’t bought the ticket and wasn’t flying, I didn’t know which of the many terminals to go to.

So the day before my daughter’s trip, I visited Southwest’s website and punched in the flight number. It is a recurring flight from New York to Chicago that takes place every weekday at the same time. The website told me that the flight had left for the day. It couldn’t tell me the terminal of departure or anything else.

Next I punched in the confirmation code for my daughter’s flight. Her mother had already checked her in, and sent me a digital copy of the boarding pass, which I needed to get through airport Security, and which also didn’t have a terminal or gate number—not surprisingly, since, even for a recurring flight, gates aren’t typically assigned until a few hours before the flight departs. I didn’t expect a gate, but a terminal would be nice. When I punched in my daughter’s confirmation code, there was still no sign of a terminal.

So I scoured the entire Southwest website. No mention of terminals anywhere.

I then used both Google and Duck Duck Go to run every query I could think of that might tell me which terminal or terminals Southwest departs from at Laguardia. Neither search engine was able to return anything of the slightest use.

I began to think that Southwest might have a problem with its markup, and its content strategy, and with any additional findability voodoo that usually gets called “SEO.”

Even maps of Laguardia and maps of airlines at Laguardia and records of flights from New York to Chicago and other Giles-like aracana I eventually thought of were unable to produce a tiddle of information about which terminal at Laguardia plays home to all or even some of Southwest’s flights.

When all else fails, call the company.

As you might expect by now, it took work to find Southwest’s phone number on its website, and when I did find it, it was one of those 20th Century mnemonic numbers that are hard to use and rather meaningless in the age of smartphones: 1-800-I-FLY-SWA.

You will not be surprised to learn that I sat through a long, unskippable audio menu full of slow-talking sales puffery before I was offered the chance to say “agent” and speak to an agent (which I needed to do since none of the menu options led to the information I wanted). After I said “agent,” the robotic voice told me, “Okay, I will connect you to an agent,” and hung up on me.

I went through this three times to make sure I wasn’t going mad and there was in fact no chance of reaching an agent.

To summarize so far: basic information not on company website or, apparently, anywhere on the web. Hard-to-use phone number did not provide info in its menu, and hung up every time it promised to connect me to an actual human agent.

So I used the contact form on the company’s website to ask my question (requesting an answer the same day if possible), and to report the usability problem on the company’s phone system, wherein if a human asks to speak to an agent, the system agrees to provide an agent and then hangs up on the customer.

Today—the day after my daughter’s flight—I received via email a form letter from Southwest apologizing for not getting me the information in time (and still not giving me the information), and advising me to solve my own problems in the future by using Southwest’s super-useful toll-free number for concerns that require immediate assistance.

I guess the person who sent the form letter hadn’t read the second sentence of my two-sentence request for help, where I mentioned that the toll-free number was broken.

Here, in its entirety, is Southwest’s response:

Dear Jeffrey,

Thank you for your email. We certainly wish we had been able to touch base with you prior to your travel. We realize how important it is to respond to our Customers’ concerns in a timely manner, and we regret disappointing you in this regard. For future reference, you may contact our toll-free number, 1-800-I-FLY-SWA, for concerns that require immediate assistance.

We appreciate your patronage and hope to see you onboard a Southwest flight soon.

Sincerely,
Wanda, Southwest Airlines

The file reference number for your e-mail is 255648215756.

You can’t make stuff like this up. The last sentence is my personal favorite. There’s nothing like a file reference number to cheer you up after experiencing failure at every customer experience point you touched.

In the end, because my kid’s mom had shared the flight details, Tripit texted me the terminal information hours before I needed it. Terminal B, which is about two-thirds the size its needs to be for the amount of traffic it handles, was predictably mobbed with holiday travelers. There was not a free seat in the house.

Business is booming.

The Lords of Vendorbation

Vendorbation
ven·dor·ba·tion
/ˈvendər-ˈbā-shən/

noun : Unusable web-based intranet software foisted on large populations of users who have no say in the matter. For example, the “dynamic” website for your kid’s school, on which you can never find anything remotely useful—like her classroom or the names and email addresses of her teachers. Merely setting up an account can be a Borgesian ordeal minus the aesthetics.

Tried updating a driver’s license, registering a name change after a marriage, or accomplishing pretty much any task on a local, state, or federal website? Congratulations! You’ve been vendorbated. In ad sales? In publishing? Travel agent? Work in retail? Y’all get vendorbated a hundred times a day. Corporate America runs, not very well, on a diet of dysfunctional intranets sold by the lords of vendorbation.

Terrible food kills a restaurant. Terrible music ends a band’s career. But unspeakably terrible software begets imperial monopolies.

Wholesale contractual vendor lock-in between vendors of artless (but artfully initially priced) web software and the technologically unknowing who are their prey (for instance, your local school board) creates a mafia of mediocrity. Good designers and developers cannot penetrate this de-meritocracy. While they sweat to squeeze through needle’s eye after needle’s eye of baffling paperwork and absurd requirements, the vendorbators, who excel at precisely that paperwork and those requirements, breeze on in and lock ‘er down.

Vendorbation takes no heed of a user’s mental model; indeed, the very concept of a user’s mental model (or user’s needs) never enters the minds of those who create vendorbatory software. I say “create” rather than “design,” because design has less than nothing to do with how this genre of software gets slapped together (“developed”) and bloated over time (“updated”).

Vendorbatory product “design” decisions stem purely from contingencies and conveniences in the code framework, which itself is almost always an undocumented archipelago of spaghetti, spit, and duct tape started by one team and continued by others, with no guiding principle other than to “get it done” by an arbitrary deadline, such as the start of a new school year or the business cycle’s next quarter.

Masturbation, or so I have read, can be fun. Not so, vendorbation. It is a nightmare for everyone—from the beleaguered underpaid lumpen developers who toil in high-pressure silos; to the hapless bureaucrats who deserve partners but get predators instead; from the end users (parents, in our example) who can never do what they came to do or find what they want, and who most often feel stupid and blame themselves; to the constituents those users wish to serve—in our example, the children. Will no one think of the children?

Cha-ching! Like a zombie-driven un-merry-go-round spinning faster and faster as the innocents strapped to its hideous horses shriek silently, the vendorbation cycle rolls on and on, season after bloody season, dollar after undeserved dollar, error after error after error after error in saecula saeculorum.

Think it’s bad now? Wait till the lords of vendorbation start making their monstrosities “mobile.”


Doff of the neologist’s toque to Eric A. Meyer, whose cornpensation helped crystalize what to do with the bad feelings.

Chicago, Chicago

An Event Apart Chicago—a photo set on Flickr. Photos of the city and the conference for people who make websites.

AN EVENT APART Chicago—a photo set on Flickr. Pictures of the city and the conference for people who make websites.

Notes from An Event Apart Chicago 2013—Luke Wroblewski’s note-taking is legendary. Here are his notes on seven of the ten presentations at this year’s An Event Apart Chicago.

#aeachi—conference comments on Twitter.

Chicago (Foursquare)—some of my favorite places in the city.

An Event Apart Chicago—sessions, schedule, and speaker bios for the conference that just ended.

AEA Chicago 2013 on Lanyrd—three days of design, code, and content on the social sharing platform for conferences.


THE NEXT AEA event takes place in Austin and is already sold out (although a few spaces are still available for the full-day workshop on multi-device design).

A handful of seats are available for the final event of the year, An Event Apart San Francisco at the Palace Hotel, December 9–11, 2013. Be there or be square.


Think Outside The Silo

IN TODAY’S A List Apart for people who make websites, we are pleased to present…

Designing for Services Beyond the Screen

by ANDY POLAINE

You redesign the website for an airline, but who is designing the check-in machines, the CRM systems used by call center staff, the print materials, or the policies the cabin crew must adhere to? Like it or not, these channels are part of the overall user experience. Your website or mobile app might be great on its own, but customers experience services in totality, and base their judgments on how well everything works together. Learn to design beyond the screen. By creating visual and tangible artifacts that can be experienced and tested, you can build a bridge between business and design.

Don’t Poke the Bear: Creating Content for Sensitive Situations

by KATE KIEFER LEE

Delivering bad news is hard, but it’s part of life and business. We notify customers when we’re out of a product they want to buy, and we send warnings when people violate our companies’ terms of service. God forbid we have to send a system alert because our database was hacked, affecting every one of our users. But these things happen to the best of us. Can you be the bearer of bad news in a way that respects your customers? Learn how to create empathetic content for tricky situations, and shape your internal culture to foster human values of support, respect, and empathy.


Illustration: Kevin Cornell

Communication Breakdown

REDUNDANT MECHANISMS that fail to communicate with one another can make using Mac OS X Lion more confusing than it should be.

Consider the screenshot shown here. While Apple’s Software Update knows that I have downloaded the latest version of iPhoto (“Your software is up to date”), Apple’s App Store, pulling from a different database, does not know that I have already installed iPhoto. It only knows that a new version is available.

Because the App Store’s left hand doesn’t know what Software Update’s right hand has already downloaded and installed, the App Store flashes a red download alert badge, urging me to download 500MB of Apple software that Apple’s OS has already installed on my Apple machine.

Suppose I don’t bother to check Software Update and verify that the App Store’s “Update” tab is urging me to take a nonsensical action. Suppose I actually go ahead and click “UPDATE” in the App Store’s “Update” tab. What will happen?

The software, all 500 MB of it, will download again, and install itself again. That’s what will happen.

And the cream of the jest? After installing the software again, if I click into the “Purchases” tab of the App Store, the “Purchases” tab will inform me that an iPhoto update is available, and urge me to install it. And if I have been huffing nitrous all day and take Apple’s advice, the 500 MB package will download for a third time and install itself a third time.

And you thought Retina images were tough on bandwidth.


(A friend tells me that Mountain Lion resolves this clustercuss by removing Software Update from the equation. I suspect that those of us still using Lion are receiving unintended anal leakage from UI decisions that make sense in Mountain Lion but are idiotic in Lion. #imisssteve)

Leo Laporte interviews JZ

IN EPISODE 63 of Triangulation, Leo Laporte, a gracious and knowledgeable podcaster/broadcaster straight outta Petaluma, CA, interviews Your Humble Narrator about web standards history, responsive web design, content first, the state of standards in a multi-device world, and why communists sometimes make lousy band managers.

Product Management for the Web; Beyond Usability Testing

IN ISSUE NO. 357 of A List Apart for people who make websites:

Beyond Usability Testing

by DEVAN GOLDSTEIN

To be sure we’re designing the right experience for the right audience, there’s no substitute for research conducted with actual users. Like any research method, though, usability testing has its drawbacks. Most importantly, it isn’t cheap. Fortunately, there are other usability research methods at our disposal. The standouts, expert review and heuristic evaluation, are easy to add to a design and development process almost regardless of budget or resource concerns. Explore these techniques, learn their advantages and disadvantages, and get the low-down on how to include them in your projects.

Product Management for the Web

by KRISTOFER LAYON

Whether we prototype, write, design, develop, or test as part of building the web, we’re creating something hundreds, thousands, or maybe even millions of people will use. But how do we know that we’re creating the right enhancements for the web, at the right time, and for the right customers? Because our client or boss asked us to? And how do they know? Enter product management for the web—bridging the gap between leadership and customers on one side, and the user experience, content strategy, design, and development team on the other. Learn to set priorities that gradually but steadily make your product (and the web) better.


SINCE 1998, A List Apart has explored the design, development, and meaning of web content, with a special focus on web standards and best practices.

Illustration by Kevin Cornell for A List Apart Magazine.