ui is all about ideas

March 23rd, 2008

User interfaces take a whole lot of effort to get right and that's the main reason I'm not particularly inclined to write gui apps. There are so many examples of bad user interface that I could spend my life writing about nothing else. Ui is hard mostly because what seems correct for one person gets forced on everyone to use. It's also because good ui takes good ideas and those are not as common as you might think. A lot of the bad ui we have to put up with comes from one group of people copying not so much the ideas but the results of another group without understanding them equally well or realizing them the same way. There's a lot of ranting in ui circles about how we're all using decade old paradigms in user interfaces, but where is the rich vein of fresh supplies?

Well, sometimes ideas do actually surface. Jensen Harris talks about the process of redesigning the gui for Ms Office. It's an insightful talk that approaches the problem of the well known gui (that has caused us all a lot of pain) with the appropriate humility towards the frustrated user. It also shows off some of the improvements (which are major!) that makes the 2007-series gui a lot more intuitive by making commands whose names we know appear visually and offer dynamic previews. Obviously, these ideas are specific to the domain of formatting and don't apply to any application, which happens to coincide with why they represent a big step forward: they enrich the experience in the domain they are for.

As you might expect, I'm not particularly interested in Office or any products coming out of Microsoft in general as they do not address my needs. But I sure do wish projects like OpenOffice (which, again, we're stuck with) would stop trying to clone the bad gui of old Microsoft products and do a little brainstorming themselves. Other examples that continue to live on in infamy include the gimp (how many thousands of dialogs have you clicked through today?), vlc (great technical performance, horrendous gui) and gvim (the gui offers next to nothing over the keyboard ui).

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