UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 507 March 24, 2010

The Impossible Bloomberg Makeover

Redesigning the Bloomberg Terminal would be any interface designer's dream. There's obviously much room for improvement since the interface hasn't changed for a long time, and the personas using it are quite easy to define.

But the complexity and richness of the displayed data, the necessity to fully understand how traders use the tool, and the immediate impact on the work efficiency of more than 156,000 users around the world make it tremendously challenging to make any changes.

Here is a picture of the Bloomberg Terminal as it stands today (2010). As most users say, "it's hideous."

The current Bloomberg UI

Here is the Bloomberg keyboard:

The Bloomberg keyboard

IDEO has submitted a redesign proposal back in 2007 after a 3-week study. Here's how it looks:

IDEO concept design

A widget allows you to zoom in on some detailed part of IDEO's design and have some explanation on the choices they've made. You can also read a short description of the project on their website.

But as a PortFolio.com article clearly puts it: "Bloomberg isn't looking to do a major overhaul of its terminals' graphic design anytime soon. In fact, company executives see the Bloomberg terminal's unique presentation as a status symbol and a selling point. 'We have to be religiously consistent' to satisfy users who become attached to terminal's look and feel, says Bloomberg chief executive Lex Fenwick. 'You can see a Bloomberg from a mile away.'"

The Bloomberg terminal is the perfect example of a lock-in effect reinforced by the powerful conservative tendencies of the financial ecosystem and its permanent need to fake complexity.

Simplifying the interface of the terminal would not be accepted by most users because, as ethnographic studies show, they take pride on manipulating Bloomberg's current "complex" interface. The pain inflicted by blatant UI flaws such as black background color and yellow and orange text is strangely transformed into the rewarding experience of feeling and looking like a hard-core professional.

The more painful the UI is, the more satisfied these users are.

The Bloomberg Terminal interface looks terrible, but it allows traders and other users to pretend you need to be experienced and knowledgeable to use it. Having been a user of the Bloomberg Terminal for five months, it took me a week and a few painful hours to handle it, and I am no genius. The only real impediments were the unbearable UI, remembering which key to push to make the "magic" work, and having to go through the 86-page manual.

Bloomberg's terminal interface will not evolve any time soon both because of the leadership Bloomberg has on the market and because users will not be satisfied with something simpler and more efficient.

Bloomberg is an extreme case of a common UI phenomenon where users take pride and find highly rewarding to handle a painful interface. Obtuse UIs are generally only accepted by early adopters of brand new or highly innovative services. Most of the time, the success of the service and the growth of its user base makes it both necessary and natural to redesign the UI. But despite the fact that Bloomberg is a market leader and has a large user base, this pattern of UI evolution hasn't come to pass.

The only valid reason explaining why the Bloomberg design will not change is the behavior of its users. Users who favor complexity and clutter over efficiency and clarity to sustain a fictive status symbol.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Dominique Leca (@domleca) is a 25-year old entrepreneur based in Paris, France. He co-founded a company specialized in iPhone application development in early 2008.

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Comments

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As others have pointed out here, simplicity isn't everything.

I'm sure like every UI, there's room for improvement. But I would like to see an Edward Tufte-style analysis of data density, layering, and non-data clutter in the current UI (and Ideo's redesign), because to a financial trader, that's going to be pretty key. The more data points you can represent on the screen in a scannable, meaningful manner, the better.

And what's up with the last sentence? It's not even a complete sentence. Try a colon or an em dash to join it with the previous sentence.

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Let me just offer something I learned from Alias Software back when it existed: Some programs can be designed to be easy to use, not easy to learn. As Bloomberg-terminal nonusers, all of us are looking at the problem through the lens of ease of learning. There seems to be implied evidence that actual users find it easy to actually use.

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Or it might be that the users themselves would gain a competitive edge over other users if the system were to evolve.

If the company were to consistently evolve the software, the hiring value of those not currently working with the system would go down, making the current work force a more powerful force in the equation and allowing for demand of higher pay since they are the experts on the current system. An expertise maintained the longer the unbroken stretch of time they work with (and keep up with) with the system.

No?

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Just like the qwerty keyboard itself then?

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I wonder if Bloomberg could do something like what Yahoo did with its mail upgrades -- create a better interface* and allow users to choose between the two. The new interface would be the default for new users.
If financial services has a high churn rate, it might not take that long before only a minority of users used the old interface. And if the new interface was provably more productive, higher-ups might even want to force their users to use the new interface.

* Note that by "better" I don't mean "quicker to learn." I mean "more productive for someone who knows the interface."

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keeping pace with the latest trendy designs is for consumer technology. this is business- are you going to write a review about air traffic control interfaces next? then criticise the users for seeking elite status??

traders love their terminals- and you suggest changing this?

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@Vlad Golovach

1. Testing would be necessary and Bloomberg would have to validate its new design with current users willing to give it a try

2.Obviously, changing from an old to a new UI is always painful and inevitably gets the experienced user a bit lost. The first GUI must have disturbed a lot of command line aficionados. No doubt there. Still, it seems the GUI metaphor turned out to be better.

3. There were 290 000 terminals in Feb 2009 (the 156 000 figure was a bit old, sorry).
Bloomberg is now losing clients due to the financial crisis and competition (Thomson-Reuters) is gaining market share :

"Bloomberg L.P. is almost entirely built on the back of its 290,000 data terminals that cost between $1,500 and $1,800 monthly. But with financial firms cutting head count, terminal sales will likely drop. We saw an early indication of this last year. Between June 2007 and March 2008 there were 34,000 job cuts by Wall Street banks. By the end of the year Bloomberg saw a drop in net sales of 1,100. That equates to losing almost $20 million in revenue."

src:http://www.businessinsider.com/thomson-reuters-will-eat-bloomberg-lps-lunch-in-2009-2009-2

4. When a product is redesigned, I don't believe former users feel they have been robbed especially if the new UI allows them to be more efficient. On the contrary, they experience it as a free reward. They pay exactly the same price and the product keeps improving.

I think now would be the easiest time for redesign.

@MikeDubs :)

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Bloomberg has a unique problem to solve. Not only would you have to redesign an arguably complex design layout dealing with a high level of abstraction from real concepts, but you also have to take consideration of the hardware aspects.

In the financial world there is a group of people that believe that complexity is key when dealing with any type of software. Discreet workflows and sensible points of navigation tend to become a point of contention against trying to show as many data points on the screen as once. It is this negative attitude that as soon as something can be dismissed as bad by the user they will instantly want to keep using the UI that they have.

The solution to creating a new Bloomberg UI is not in the traditional design process. Bloomberg will need to have someone that will welcome and embrace change in order to migrate people over to a new UI scheme. This will be a migration, under no circumstances will people instantly flock over to a new UI and embrace it by any means.

Is the task impossible? I don't think so, but it is complicated and full of politics. My biggest fear is that someone does redesign the Bloomberg terminal. How does Bloomberg actually apply the change? There is a lot of very expensive hardware out there to replace and we have to assume Bloomberg is sitting on top a number of good design decisions already.

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The last statement stinks in my opinion. Indeed the users get pride from their knowledge. But it's not the main issue. It's abit more complex.

1. Current users can't see any benefit from new UI before it got released.

2. Current users can easily see pain from new UI: at least part of their skills will be thrown away, making invested effort to learn UI blow to dust.

3. The new users will clearly benefit from new UI but every single cent spent on this UI will be paid by old users (since all the money come from current users not a future ones).

4. Being the ones who knows how money are working, current users can easily figure that with new UI they will get raped for their own money.

So instead of insulting more than 156,000 Bloomberg users around the world you maybe (don't wanna be overly critical here) get Econ 101 again? This time for serious?

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Experienced something similar with academic users of an ebook resource. When presented with proposals to make the content easier to find (via search engines), interpret and access they tended to rumble about 'not wanting undergrads and the like' using it.

Essentially it seemed they were suggesting that they had had to fight and win to gain access to this content and, although the argument was generally along the lines of 'cheapening' the content, they really meant that the wanted barriers to access to keep it all for themselves.

Perhaps they have a point, perhaps they're wrong, but if they pay the bill then there isn't much you can do about it.

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@djmoore *nix command like interface might be the most efficient one out there. It certainly isn't clear and it isn' easy to learn but don't confuse ease of learning, with ease of use and efficiency.

For all that I know, their software might truly be terrible. But who exactly says that "black background color" and "yellow and orange text" are blatant UI flaws that inflict pain? That is a rather misinformed statement.

Bloomberg displays (the hardware) designed by Antenna Design are lovely though.

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You should not assume the Bloomberg UI is bad just because it is ugly and complex. It may be fantastically useful once you get the hang of it. Not everything has to look like the appple website.

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"The only valid reason explaining why Unix/Linux design will not change is the behavior of its users. Users who favor obscurity and complexity over efficiency and clarity to sustain a fictive status symbol."

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Bloomberg's interface is fantastic! I have used it and haven't found anything that even comes close.

I remember the mockups done by some companies a few years ago (three of them I believe, one was mentioned in the article). All the mockups were terrible, they distracted from the actual purpose of the software.

It may not look pretty to those who are seeing it for the first time, but it does its job very well.

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I'm not an experienced designer, but isn't the point of design to promote usability? If a tool works well for those who use it, new users are capable of being reasonably trained to use it successfully, and no users want change, is there really a design "problem"?

Additionally, is something "hideous" necessarily poorly designed? I think my new Droid is a little bit hideous, actually (especially in comparison to the iPhone), but it works pretty well, and I have been able to figure out most tasks without assistance.

I guess the question might be: is design meant to help users (who may not objectively perceive their own potential for productivity), or promote productivity? The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

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The most sensible post I've seen here so far

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@Chris Aviore

Ideo's proposal is not presented as a savior. Far from it. I doubt that the mock-up they've done include every feature Bloomberg has to offer. I just underline the fact that Bloomberg hasn't even considered the design and has not even responded to Ideo, making it clear that improving the existing interface was not their priority.
Who can afford not to consider a pro-active Ideo design proposal ?

Comparing a wildly innovative environment like an airplane cockpit with Bloomberg make no sense. The jetfighter are by definition at the edge of available technology and as the article suggest, the most complex technology almost always have poor interface.

In 2010, Bloomberg has nothing of a cutting-edge technology product and yet, the interface remains 'hideous'.
I am quite certain that a white background is better than a black one for reading.

I agree on the fact that the interface should be judged based on measuring the results and performance of users.

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"The pain inflicted by blatant UI flaws such as black background color and yellow and orange text is strangely transformed into the rewarding experience of feeling and looking like a hard-core professional."

"I am quite certain that a white background is better than a black one for reading."

This is something that has really baffled me for the longest time--that designers insist that a white background with dark text is better than white text on a black background. This is really just habit rearing its head because designers are used to working with paper. Paper is a reflective medium, meaning it subtracts light. Computer monitors, on the other hand, *are* light. Looking at white on a monitor is no different than looking at a light bulb. It strains the eye. Have you ever heard someone complain that they can't read for long on a computer and prefer paper? This is why. Having a black background with bright text on a monitor is much easier on the eye. Ever wonder why IT folks who use terminals use white on black? Have you ever wondered why movie credits are white on black?

UX Designers really need to get over this one. Colored and/or black backgrounds on a light projecting medium are a good thing. Stop thinking it's paper.

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So we take one cursory look at a Bloomberg terminal and assess its effectiveness as a platform, and also compare it to a prototype done in 3 weeks as a savior neglected by management. Hmm.

I think a bugle looks easy to play. It's not.

I also think a cockpit of a jet fighter looks tough. I couldn't sit down and fly my ass to the other side of the country in an hour and land on the deck of an aircraft carrier all because the interface was intuitive.

Measure the results, not how many gradients are in the design or if Smashing Magazine lists it in the top 1,293 most beautful gorgeous trendy patternized CSS5 financial sites.

Do you guys really think Bloomberg doesn't hire UX pros? Do you think they don't have the dough to change if they knew it wouldn't squeeze one more one hundredth of a penny out of every trade?

Let's be realistic.

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Hear hear! Good design is a means, not an end. If those ends can be achieved by some other means, and more importantly, if good design rocks a very steady boat with a lot of money in it, then there has to be a very great impetus for change.

If power users are able to get their work done without complaint then what's the issue? Even if they actually don't like the current interface and do think it needs improvement, a misplaced feature or a miscalculation on the part of the designer could disorient users working in high-risk environments.

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It is a goal-oriented design. Clearly it is not a human centered one.
Just like a violin. You have to spend some time for playing a tune.
So actually, it's not bad at all.

But I expect to see a disruptive financial information service which can defeat Bloomberg terminal soon. As you can see, there are many thing you can do much better.

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I have heard from traders that they don't focus on the screens, but look for patterns within the movement and colours which then draws them to drill into specific stock. Having to relearn a system to discover the new patterns may be prohibitive for some.

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@AJK has it: Bloomberg needs to at least try a new UI on a subset of people. If they perform drastically better, consider killing the old UI. If they don't - well, I guess simplicity isn't everything!

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That's extremely bad leadership on Bloomberg's part and instead these high powered idiots who can make alot of mistakes due to the so not hilarious UI, LOVE acting smart because they know how to work it.

I worked in a company which used a form of command prompt/terminal styled interface and we all loved it because we eventually understood it, it looked difficult and we felt smart.

The company forcefully changed the design to something smoother and we all objected, after 2 years NON of us would EVER go back to the terminal styled UI.

Bloomberg need to get their head in the game, bite the bullet and modernise. This is almost as bad as commercial companies still using IE6 despite NO support for it at all.

Regards

Craig

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What about the competition? Are they using more modern, user friendly user interfaces?

The Bloomberg terminal reminds me of the user interfaces you see on TV shows like 24. Lots of graphs and numbers running all over. You can probably hack into the Pentagon with it by randomly bashing the keyboard.

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That might change if people with an improved interface financially do better than those with the old interface.

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