Category Archives: Agile & Architecture

Agile Development & Software Architecture

The Colour Nazis

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a movement obsessed with removing colour, especially those whose skin colour or religious preference was different to their own. This went to great extremes, caused the greatest of all wars, and we are all aware of the terrible atrocities done as a result. It is one of the horrors of our current time that those beliefs, which we thought had been consigned to history, seem to be getting some renewed attention and following.

If faced with political extremism, the predominantly liberal groups who control and shape our technology would typically be horrified and opposed. However at the same time they are forcing on us fashions and design paradigms which in their own way are just as odious, impacting the richness of our experience, and limiting rather than improving our ability to interact with technology.

I refer, of course, to the Colour Nazis. The members of this movement probably don’t think of themselves that way, and if forced to adopt a label would choose something much more neutral, but it is becoming apparent that some of their thinking is not that different.

This is not the first time I’ve complained about this. In 2012 I wrote “Tyranny of the Colour Blind, or Have Microsoft Lost Their Mojo?”. The trouble is that things are getting worse, not better. Grappling with Office 2016 I’m coming to grips with some really dramatically stupid decisions which can only be explained by a Nazi zeal to remove the colour from our technological interactions.

Here’s a quick test. Find Open, Save and the Thesaurus in Office 2003:


Now let’s try Office 2010:


Not too bad. The white background actually helps by increasing contrast, and the familiar splashes of colour still draw your eye quickly to the right icons, although the Thesaurus is a bit anonymous. Now let’s try Office 2016:


The faded grey on a grey background colour scheme has wiped out most of the contrast, and you’d be struggling to make these out if you have ageing sight in a poor working environment. The pale pastel yellow of “Open” is still just recognisable, but the “Save ” button has turned to a weird pale purple, and the Thesaurus is completely anonymous. I’d have to go hunting by hovering over each and reading the tooltip. (Before anyone shouts, I know I’ve used an add-in menu here to get a like-for-like comparison, but all this is equally true for the full-sized ribbon controls.)

Now let’s look at a really stupid example. One of Word’s great strengths is the ability to assemble and review tracked changes from multiple reviewers. In Word 2010 each will be assigned a distinctive colour, and I can very quickly see who’s who:


OK that works well. Let’s see what they’ve done in Office 2016:


WTF! One place where colour has a specific role as an information dimension, and they’ve actually taken it away. In the document the markup does use some colour, but in the form of a few pale pastel lines. Instead the screen is cluttered up with the name of the author against every single change, which makes it unreadable if multiple authors have made changes to a single page.

I am always among the first to remind designers not to rely on colour, as it doesn’t work well for about 8% of the population, or in some viewing conditions. But that’s no reason to remove it. Instead you should supplement it (e.g. make icons both distinctive colours and shapes), or allow the users a choice. Word 2016 should allow me to choose whether to use colour or explicit names in markup balloons, and I wouldn’t be having this rant.

There is apparently a name for this fad, “Complexion Reduction” (see Complexion Reduction: A New Trend In Mobile Design by Michael Horton). The problem is that its advocates seem to have lost sight of some key principles of human-computer interaction. One of these is that for normally-sighted people there’s a clear hierarchy in how we spot or identify things:

  1. Colour. If we can look for a splash of colour, that’s easiest. That’s why fire extinguishers are red, or the little red coat was so poignant in Schindler’s List.
  2. Shape / position. We manage a lot of interactions by recognising shapes. That’s why icons work in the first place. We even do this when the affordance supplies text as well. If you’re a native English speaker and reader you will inevitably have tried to move a door the wrong way, because “PUSH” and “PULL” have such similar shapes, and your brain tries shapes first, text second.
  3. Text. When all else fails, read the instructions. That’s not a joke, it’s a real fact about how people’s brains work. If I have to go hunting in a menu or reading tooltips, then the designer has failed miserably.

Sadly I don’t know if there’s any way to influence this. These decisions are probably being made by ultra-hip youngsters with ironic beards and 20 year old eyes who don’t really get HCI. I’d just like one of them to read this blog.

Addendum — May 2019

So the hierarchy for interactions is first colour, then shape, then text.

So please could someone explain to me why the latest versions of Android have also decided to force almost all application icons into a uniform shape (circular on my Sony phone, a rounded rectangle on my Samsung tablet) with exactly the same background colour?

On my phone, all the main Google apps now have icons which are white circles with tiny splashes of the same four colours. The Sony apps (including the main phone functions) are white circles with small icons, using the same pale blue, within them. To add an extra spice, the launcher I use occasionally moves the icons around, if I add a new front-page app or the labels change.

My poor brain has no chance whatsoever. I open my phone, and then have to READ labels to make sure I’m opening the right app. Hopeless!

Posted in Agile & Architecture, PCs/Laptops, Thoughts on the World | Leave a comment

Microsoft : Busy Fixing What Ain’t Broke

There’s an interesting, but intensely annoying, behaviour by the big software companies, which as far as I’m aware has no parallel in other areas of production for consumer consumption. We’ve all been used, since the mid-20th century, to the concept Continue reading

Monday, August 29, 2016 in Agile & Architecture, PCs/Laptops, Thoughts on the World

Fashion Makes Doing IT Harder

I’m about to start building an expert system. Or maybe I might call it a "knowledge base", or a "rule based system". It’s not an "AI", as at least in its early life it won’t have any self-learning capability, but Continue reading

Wednesday, July 6, 2016 in Agile & Architecture, Thoughts on the World

Does Your Broadband Beat a Carrier Pigeon?

There’s a famous quote "never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes bowling down a highway". Musing on this I decided to try and estimate the bandwidth of a carrier pigeon, given modern storage technology. According to Continue reading

Friday, May 6, 2016 in Agile & Architecture, Thoughts on the World

Platform Flexibility – It’s Alive!

The last post, written largely back in November and published just before Christmas suggested that camera manufacturers should focus on opening up their products as development platforms, much as has happened with mobile phones. While I can’t yet report on Continue reading

Monday, January 4, 2016 in Agile & Architecture, Android, Code & Development, Photography, Thoughts on the World

Do We Want Product Development, or Platform Flexibility?

There’s been a bit of noise recently in the photography blogosphere relating to how easy it is to make changes to camera software, and why, as a result, it feels like camera manufacturers are flat out not interested in the Continue reading

Tuesday, December 22, 2015 in Agile & Architecture, Code & Development, Photography, Thoughts on the World

SharePoint: Simply C%@p, or Really Complicated C%@p?

There’s a common requirement for professional users of online document management systems. Sometimes you want to have access to a subset of files offline, with the ability to upload changes when you have finished work and are connected again. Genuine Continue reading

Wednesday, November 4, 2015 in Agile & Architecture, Code & Development, Thoughts on the World

The Software Utility Cycle

There’s a well-known model called the “Hype Cycle”, which plots how technology evolves to the point of general adoption and usefulness. While there are a lot of detail variants, they all boil down to something like the following (courtesy Wikipedia Continue reading

Wednesday, September 30, 2015 in Agile & Architecture, Thoughts on the World

Can No-One Write A Good Book About Oracle SOA?

I’m frustrated. I’ve just read a couple of good, if somewhat repetitive, design pattern books: one on SOA design with a resolutely platform-neutral stance, and another on architecting for the cloud, with a Microsoft Azure bent but which struck an Continue reading

Saturday, June 13, 2015 in Agile & Architecture, Reviews, Thoughts on the World

Cloud Design Patterns

This is a very useful introduction to key cloud concepts and how common challenges can be met. It’s also a good overview of how Microsoft technologies may fit into these solutions, but avoids becoming so Microsoft-centric that it becomes useless Continue reading

Things Which Really Bug Me About the Kindle

I  read a lot using the Kindle applications for Android and PC. While there’s a lot which is good about that process there are a number of things which really bug me. Some of these look incredibly simple to resolve, Continue reading

Tuesday, June 9, 2015 in Agile & Architecture, Thoughts on the World

Service Design Patterns

One of the most influential architecture books of the early 00s was Enterprise Integration Patterns by Gregor Hohpe and Bobby Woolf. That book not only provided far and away the best set of patterns and supporting explanations for designers of Continue reading

Friday, June 5, 2015 in Agile & Architecture, Reviews