Fog Creek

Where Your Team’s Unresolved Arguments Are Stored

The New User Options Page

Fifteen years ago, Fog Creek founder Joel Spolsky’s blog post “Choices” forever changed the way I think about designing software. And to this day, it’s forever changed the way I go about evaluating software. Sure, I might go poke around the key features a bit, but before too long, I head straight for the user options page. That’s where you can see if a team has made the hard choices.

We at Fog Creek pride ourselves in making trade-offs to keep our products clean and usable. We’ve spent a ton of time and effort polishing the user experience, features, and performance of FogBugz. We refreshed the design and made some subtle but powerful improvements to the functionality. When our well-intended plugin architecture ended up fragmenting the user experience, we deprecated it and did the hard work of rolling the most popular plugins into the core product. FogBugz is now a fast, modern, single-page web app.

Unfortunately, our user options page told a slightly different story. If you go to your user options page in FogBugz right now, you’ll see the new page, but you can still access the old one via the “Legacy Settings” link at the bottom of the page. There were just too many options on the old version of that page. Twenty, to be exact. Eight of them made the cut. The other twelve fell into these categories:

  • 4 were options that supported deprecated or rarely used features, like discussion groups or the escalation report. We’d done the hard work of editing our actual product, but we’d not edited the options page.
  • 6 were rarely used options to allow you to override defaults, like your browser timezone or the keyboard shortcut key you use for snippets. If you need these options, it’s likely you’d have to contact our (awesome) support team anyway to understand that fact, so they’re better off tucked away on an advanced settings page.
  • And 2 were the ones Joel was writing about: unresolved arguments about how the product should work.

I’ll treat the last two individually because I think they’re both interesting case studies in user experience design.

Case Close Action

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The first was “Case Close Action.” This setting governs what happens when you close a case from the case detail page. Some time between FogBugz’s inception fifteen years ago and my joining Fog Creek seven years ago, the decision was made that the appropriate thing to do on closing a case was to whisk you back to the list page of your currently active filter (presumably to choose a new thing to work on).

Longtime Creeker, Dane Bertram, has been a vocal internal proponent of eliminating this behavior. There is no other action in FogBugz that initiates a page navigation automatically. There is no clear benefit to this particular automated action other than speeding up one rather infrequent (for many people) user interaction. I think Dane’s probably right for the majority of FogBugz users.

But the whisking behavior makes high-volume customer support much easier to do with FogBugz. Shaving off the extra work of manually closing a case and moving onto the next makes a real difference. There’s no right answer here, so the right (hard) thing to do is to make a decision and make a trade-off. We chose to keep the old default (whisking), and keep the user option on the legacy settings page for anyone who finds the behavior annoying.

What we are not doing is confusing the average user with an option that they’d have to work hard to understand.

Case Event Sort Order

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The second option was “Case Event Sort Order”. When you edit a case, an event gets added to it. The question is: in what order do we display those events: oldest first or newest? This is a question that gets asked and answered all over the place. In Gmail, looking at an email thread, new messages are added to the bottom of the page. Looking at the inbox list, however, the newest threads show up at the top.

In FogBugz, early on, we decided that new events append to the end of the case, but as the amount of data in our FogBugz instance grew, we often found ourselves having to do a lot of scrolling to get to the most recent (read: relevant) information.

Also, when you edit a case, you do it in a text box at the top of the page, but when you hit OK, your edit gets appended at the bottom.

We took some comfort in the fact that user interface designers, even excellent ones, have bumped into this kind of problem in the past. At the Fog Creek-sponsored Business of Software conference in 2009, design guru Don Norman addressed precisely this question in the first five minutes of his talk. “The answer is they’re both perfectly legitimate. We just gotta settle on one of them and keep it.”

We did not do that back in the day, but we’ve done it now, and we let the user be our guide. When we looked at the data, it showed that a whopping 20% of our users had navigated our old and bloated user options page, found this setting, and changed it away from the default (oldest first). That is basically a landslide victory for newest first. We’re changing the default for all new accounts. Returning longtime FogBugz fans who are used to the old way of doing things are welcome to override this, of course.

Defending User Experience

I’m really happy with the new options page, including its more modern design. Why spend time on this at all? Well, at its core, this is what Fog Creek is. This is who we are. In all of our products, we offer a heavily defended user experience. We are allergic to feature bloat. We want to offer thoughtfully designed software, whether it’s the three-year-old Trello or the teenage FogBugz. We hope you see this ethos throughout our offerings, although we mostly hope it never occurs to you in the first place because you’re already too busy using our tools successfully to notice.