The BBC iPlayer button that does nothing

Published on 7 June 2011 in , , , , , , ,

Whilst writing on the exciting topic of train-ticket-collection-usability, I was reminded of my own recent example of useless usability.

When delivering video by the internet, there’s always the chance that the users connection will drop so when building the Freesat (and now Freeview) version of BBC iPlayer we built a function that would detect for if the internet connection disappeared and, if it did, show an error message.

The error message is rather simple. It appears, tells the user there’s a problem and invites them to either quit (by going ‘Back to TV’) or “Retry”. The thing is, pressing “Retry” actually does nothing at all.

Error screen from Freesat version of BBC iPlayer

“But Andrew,” you are no doubt currently thinking, “At best, you’ve created the TV equivalent of The Really Big Button That Doesn’t Do Anything, and rather evilly put it on an error screen. At worst, it’s the new Abort, Retry, Fail?. You horrible, nasty, down-right evil person.”

And I’d say, “Hold on… give me a moment to explain…”

Whilst the error screen is visible, the application hasn’t given up totally. At regular intervals the code does a check to see if the internet connection has reappeared. If it has, the error screen quietly disappears and you can use BBC iPlayer again.

So why, therefore, have a button that says retry that’s completely unnecessary and doesn’t do anything? Indeed, this was a question asked of me many times by the technical team who, despite my repeated explanations in a variety of ways, took a whole to understand the logic. After all, the code is always checking to see if the internet connection has reappeared. Technically we didn’t really need a retry button.

The trick is to ignore the technicalities for”the button that don’t do owt” is ultimately aimed at the user.

Ever tried to fix something that’s broken? A computer programme, kettle, light switch, whatever. You put everything together in a way that you think fixes the problem, and set about seeing if it’s right. You press the button (or whatever) and lo… it’s still broken.

You curse, bang your head on the wall and go back again.

The retry-button-that-does-nothing is for such people (and I am one of them.) It’s there for the people who have spotted there’s an internet connection problem and they’ve tried to fix it. But they haven’t. The error screen is still there. But they still think they have. So they press the retry button.

And the error screen is still there.

The fact that they’ve pressed a button and nothing has changed means they know that whatever it was that they did, didn’t work. They need to go back to the drawing board and start again.

So whilst the button is utterly pointless, sometimes having something that does nothing, really does do something.