Substack through the lens of Schneiderman’s User Actions

Ben Shneiderman’s User Actions are a practical tool for analyzing user interfaces in the context of how users actually engage with them. Shneiderman, a computer scientist and University Professor at the University of Maryland, developed these actions to inspire designers to consider more practically how users think about using interfaces in day-to-day life.

In learning more about this wonderful approach to analyzing user actions, I came to the conclusion that I should attempt to apply the actions in the analysis of real web design. I’ve decided to take a look at Substack, an increasingly popular newsletter platform.

I started by creating a basic rubric by which I’d analyze the site. This rubric is 100% based on Shneiderman’s user actions model, which you can learn more about in his book “Designing the User Interface.”

Beginning | 1Developing | 2Accomplished | 3Exemplary | 4Pts
Overview: Gain an overview of the entire collectionMost primary affordances, relevant options, and key information is not clearly visible and/or is ambiguous.Some primary affordances, relevant options, and key information is clearly visible and unambiguous.Most primary affordances, relevant options, and key information is clearly visible and unambiguous.All primary affordances, relevant options, and key information is clearly visible and unambiguous.
Zoom: Zoom in on items of interestIt is difficult or impossible to focus attention on any given primary affordances, relevant options, and key information as the user desires.It is sometimes possible to focus attention on some primary affordances, relevant options, and key information as the user desires.It is possible to focus attention on most primary affordances, relevant options, and key information as the user desires.It is very easy and intuitive to focus attention on all primary affordances, relevant options, and key information as the user desires.
Filter: Filter out uninteresting itemsFiltering out irrelevant and/or disinteresting affordances or content is not possible.Filtering out irrelevant and/or disinteresting affordances or content is extremely cumbersome but possible.Filtering out irrelevant and/or disinteresting affordances or content is doable and sometimes intuitive.Filtering out irrelevant and/or disinteresting affordances or content is very easy and intuitive.
Details-on-demand: Select an item or group to get details when neededThe user is presented with sparse details required to analyze a given affordance or piece of content and it is difficult/impossible to request these details.The user is presented with some details required to analyze a given affordance or piece of content, but it takes some effort.The user is presented with most details required to analyze a given affordance or piece of content in an acceptable way.The user is presented with all details required to analyze a given affordance or piece of content in an elegant and simple way.
Relate: View relationships between itemsIt is difficult or impossible to view and understand the relationships between any affordances, options, and information.It is possible but cumbersome to view and understand the relationships between some affordances, options, and information.It is mostly easy to view and understand the relationships between most affordances, options, and information.It is easy and intuitive to view and understand the relationships between all affordances, options, and information.
History: Keep a history of actions to support undo/replay/progressive refinementUndoing or tracing back actions is difficult or impossible and breaks the user experience.Undoing or tracing back actions is often difficult and sometimes breaks the user experience.Undoing or tracing back actions is sometimes easy and doesn’t break the user experience.Undoing or tracing back actions is easy, intuitive and doesn’t break the user experience.
Extract: Allow extraction of sub-collections and of the query parametersExtracting collections and information from the interface is not possible.Extracting collections and information from the interface is difficult or often irrelevant in context.Extracting collections and information from the interface is sometimes easy and sometimes contextual (relevant).Extracting collections and information from the interface is easy and contextual (relevant).
*Rubric heavily inspired by Ben Shneiderman’s User Actions

Rubric in hand, follow along as I attempt to break down Substack’s website (on February 20th, 2021) based on Shneiderman’s user actions:

Here’s where things stacked up for Substack in my review:

Beginning | 1Developing | 2Accomplished | 3Exemplary | 4Pts
Overview: Gain an overview of the entire collectionMost primary affordances, relevant options, and key information is not clearly visible and/or is ambiguous.Some primary affordances, relevant options, and key information is clearly visible and unambiguous.Most primary affordances, relevant options, and key information is clearly visible and unambiguous.All primary affordances, relevant options, and key information is clearly visible and unambiguous.4
Zoom: Zoom in on items of interestIt is difficult or impossible to focus attention on any given primary affordances, relevant options, and key information as the user desires.It is sometimes possible to focus attention on some primary affordances, relevant options, and key information as the user desires.It is possible to focus attention on most primary affordances, relevant options, and key information as the user desires.It is very easy and intuitive to focus attention on all primary affordances, relevant options, and key information as the user desires.4
Filter: Filter out uninteresting itemsFiltering out irrelevant and/or disinteresting affordances or content is not possible.Filtering out irrelevant and/or disinteresting affordances or content is extremely cumbersome but possible.Filtering out irrelevant and/or disinteresting affordances or content is doable and sometimes intuitive.Filtering out irrelevant and/or disinteresting affordances or content is very easy and intuitive.4
Details-on-demand: Select an item or group to get details when neededThe user is presented with sparse details required to analyze a given affordance or piece of content and it is difficult/impossible to request these details.The user is presented with some details required to analyze a given affordance or piece of content, but it takes some effort.The user is presented with most details required to analyze a given affordance or piece of content in an acceptable way.The user is presented with all details required to analyze a given affordance or piece of content in an elegant and simple way.2
Relate: View relationships between itemsIt is difficult or impossible to view and understand the relationships between any affordances, options, and information.It is possible but cumbersome to view and understand the relationships between some affordances, options, and information.It is mostly easy to view and understand the relationships between most affordances, options, and information.It is easy and intuitive to view and understand the relationships between all affordances, options, and information.4
History: Keep a history of actions to support undo/replay/progressive refinementUndoing or tracing back actions is difficult or impossible and breaks the user experience.Undoing or tracing back actions is often difficult and sometimes breaks the user experience.Undoing or tracing back actions is sometimes easy and doesn’t break the user experience.Undoing or tracing back actions is easy, intuitive and doesn’t break the user experience.2
Extract: Allow extraction of sub-collections and of the query parametersExtracting collections and information from the interface is not possible.Extracting collections and information from the interface is difficult or often irrelevant in context.Extracting collections and information from the interface is sometimes easy and sometimes contextual (relevant).Extracting collections and information from the interface is easy and contextual (relevant).4
*Rubric heavily inspired by Ben Shneiderman’s User Actions

Overall Score: 24/28

This is in no way a “holistic” review of Substack’s website – this user action analysis simply attempts to break down the effectiveness of the site in helping the user realize its utility. It does not attempt to analyze the merits of the site’s design at a broader level.

Thanks for reading (and watching)!

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