The UI Challenge

Posted Fri, Apr 21 2006 1:32 by bill
Over the years we've seen a lot of evolution in the way we write code, in wiring up data etc. Many of those challenges have been solved or are making serious progress.  That's not to say "we're there yet" on the inner workings of programs, but I feel they are no longer the complex hurdles we really face.  The big hurdles, the big challenges are the UI ones...
Tools for writing/designing better UI's may and probably will help a lot.  As WPF evolves, hopefully we'll see people thinking smarter and providing more intuitive UI's.  But in the meanwhile I think there's a lot more we can do. It's not easy, in fact it's often easier to say what fails.  Finding those UI solutions is at present an "art".
Microsoft has on one hand been making huge inroads, yet on the other hand getting it woefully wrong. I'll discuss some UI challenges from Office 2007 and Windows Vista as examples. Remember as you read this though, the end user.  Too often using windows today is overly complex for a lot of people....
The Start Menu Programs challenge...
If you've ever worked on someone else's computer and they haven't modified their start menu programs list from the default, you'll find in many cases it's almost unusable.... a massive list that takes over the screen with almost no sense of order.   The problem is it is hard to find things, and difficult to organize.
The "solution" put forward in Vista is to further confine that menu space.  Users then navigate with a series of forward and back movements.  Seriously this is an example of a NOT solution, a very very bad one that not only does not address the fundamental problem, but actually makes it worse.  It might look pretty, but I think all it shows is a UI designed by the "web" guys. :(
It does not address the lack of organisation, it does not make it easier to customise (actually makes it harder as you can no longer drag and drop), and it makes finding items harder as you need to traverse down each path then back up again rather than being able to "look in" without traversing like you currently can in XP.
Now rather than just criticize, I always like to at least suggest possible better approaches.  I see the fundamental root of the problem being the lack of organisation.  Every application wants centre stage.  What I would do is catalogue them.  So start menu Programs would have a set of basic catergories, such as "Games", "Media", "Internet", "Productivity", "Reference", "Finance" and "UnCatalogued".   
You'd then introduce a new API to install icons to the start menu, one where you specify the category. If you don't then the items (and their folder) would go under the "UnCatalogued" group. Windows would have a set of known applications, and categorise them for you by default, allowing a great upgrade story.   And, when you right click on an item of an item folder, you'd have a "move to " menu item that would allow you to select the category to move things to. 
I like this solution as it empowers the user, has a great backward compatibility story while providing new intuitive ways of presenting what can be an unwieldy list to people.  I think that addresses that challenge, don't you ?
The Explorer Challenge ...
Once again I want to look at a Vista "feature".  Explorer in Vista has a new "bread crumbs" control that tells you where you are and does so as hyperlinks.  A very much "web" design, once again requiring a lot of "back" and "forward" navigation.  Amazingly they seemed to have dropped the "folders" navigation panel completely.  For me I find this incredibly painstaking to use.  They've removed functionality such as drag and drop between folders. They have made the "view" nicer, with greater thumbnails.
Here, I'm not really sure what the problem was. Was it finding personal folders etc ?  Perhaps what they need to be looking at is enhancing the folder view, so as it makes it easier to see your folders from the rest. Perhaps highlighting folders most recently used while making other folders less contrast. IOW: visual cues in the navigation.
The Office menu bar challenge ...
This one is a huge challenge. And for the most part I think the Office team have got it right.  They've simplified the UI, they've made it relevant to what you are doing. The ribbon is a great step forward.
But I think somewhere along the path they got overly condescending with the end users and decided not to let them customise the ribbon. At the same time they've let developers customise it, taking even more control away from the user. I can imagine a lot of complaints over "when I install such and such add-in, or open such and such document I can no longer...."
This is wrong. The user, the customer is always right after all ;)  They should be allowed to customise the ribbon, they should be trusted know what’s best for them.
Even in the simple editing of a document, I found the new ribbon nice, but also kind of painful.  It's too task centric, and is designed around the user only doing one task at a time. That often is not the case.  I noticed it most when review a document.  I was either "reviewing" or "writing" as far as word was concerned, not both at the same time.
How could that task centric approach be more flexible?  Well one thing I think would be really nice is if they made each panel inside the ribbon pinnable.  That way you could say this panel is always shown. You'd be able to shrink and expand each panel and decide what is shown in each one from the panel's list, so they'd still remain grouped by the panel, but you'd be able to simplify what's in a panel to only the things you regularly use, the other things showing in the popup for the panel.
So I think they are incredibly close to a great solution, but not quite there yet ;)
Different perspectives ....
Looking at these three cases, I can't help but notice that although I'm not happy with any of the proposed solutions, the Office team's solution at least seems to have addressed the fundamental problem or attempted to, whereas the Vista solutions look more like the "web" designers have come in and used "web" paradigms, totally overlooking the immense flexibility and power that rich client provides.  Is this intentional ?  Is the Vista team dumbing down windows so it looks like it is running over the web ?
Perhaps, or hopefully it's more they are trying out radically different approaches purely to help shake up how they think of the problem, a problem they have yet to begin to address ? It's interesting to note the very different approaches taken.
So why my interest in this, why the blog entry ?  Well I'm working on a different UI problem at present, and sometimes it's good to think outside the circle, look at different approaches, and take a step or two back, and hear what other people think.  Then take another step back and be the user. 
Sometimes the solution remains evasive.  One thing that’s fir sure, the UI, making applications more attuned to the user is the next big challenge.
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# re: The UI Challenge

Monday, April 24, 2006 9:51 PM by Mike McIntyre

I was glad to see your comment about the Start menu in Vista and agree with your opinion 100%.