Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, April 30, 2009

another reason I'm glad to be a Certified Microsoft-Free Zone

Steven Frank, on the recently released screenshots of Office 2010:

Part of the reason my reaction was so negative was that, in my mind, I was trying to walk through a phone conversation with a hypothetical family member who was struggling with that window. It’s not hard to imagine: “OK, now click on the delete button. It’s in the upper left of the window. It says Delete, but it’s not the big black X, it’s the smaller red X to the left and below that. No, not the red circle with the slash through it, that’s a different kind of delete. You want the X. No not the big X. You don’t see it? Are you on the ribbon tab that says Message, or the other tab that looks sort of like four interlocking rectangles? The ribbon is the main part of the window at the top. OK, why don’t I just drive over there.”

As he says in his first post on the topic, "This is impenetrable. It’s UI salad."


  • Michael Straight said...

    Because when you design a tool that people use every day, the most important consideration is that it make immediate sense the first time you glance at it?

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    You'll probably think I'm kidding, Michael, but I think that's precisely right. The UI should make sense the first time you glance at it. Which means that it's okay for some of the lesser-used features not to be immediately visible. I can't tell you how many Office users I've talked to over the years who have been so confused and intimidated by the "UI salad" that they just gave up on figuring the apps out, and settled for being able to use only the most basic functions. A clear UI gives people the ability to master the central functions, and that in turn gives them a platform from which to go on to explore the more recondite aspects of the app.

  • Michael Straight said...

    For one thing, with a tool like Office, there's no such thing as "the central functions". There's an enormous number of features that are all used by roughly the same number of people as their "central functions". So you could maybe have 5 buttons: Paste, Cut, Copy, Print, Bold and bury everything else in six-deep hierarchical menus. Or you could try something like what Microsoft has done with Office 2007.

    But more generally, I think your principle is very short-sighted. It might make sense from a marketing standpoint, someone whose main concern is getting new customers to use the product.

    But from a user's point of view, you only have to learn how to use the software once. To design the UI entirely around making that first encounter easy and obvious is really silly if you're going to be using it all the time. For something like Office, you want the UI to be designed to make your day-to-day tasks easy and efficient, even if that means you had to spend a couple hours learning how it works.

    Your suggestion makes more sense for software that you use infrequently and is not worth the investment in learning how to use it. Stuff like the interface for a online store's shopping cart, or for leaving comments on a blog.

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    Michael, you really think the choice is between having a hundred buttons on the screen or five? You really think that no features of an application are more central than others — that text entry in Word is not more central than embedding audio clips? Well, if you say so. But I think you're just creating straw men on both sides of the argument. Thus your taking my claim that the UI should "make sense" and converting it into the very different and utterly ridiculous claim that developers should "design the UI entirely around making that first encounter easy and obvious." Straw men are easy to make, but the making of them is a pointless activity.

  • I think it is helpful if an application doesn't make you feel like an imbecile.

  • Michael Straight said...

    Alan, if all you really want to do is type a bit of text, cut, copy, paste, undo, and maybe print, you should just use something like notepad. That's pretty simple and intuitive. The problem is that most people want to do more than that, but that there are hundreds of variations on what exactly that "more" is.

    Microsoft Word is an enormously complex and powerful tool used for a very broad range of stuff. If you are talking about people who are actually using it to do something they couldn't do with Notepad, then no, there is not a simple, intuitive interface that would "just make sense" to everyone regardless of which of the hundreds of things Word is commonly used for that they're doing.

    Check out some of these articles by one of the lead developers for the Office 2007 interface:

    Jensen Harris: An Office User Interface Blog

    They collected enormous amounts of data on how people actually use Word, Excel, etc:

    "Together, [the top] five commands account for around 32% of the total command use in Word 2003. Paste itself accounts for more than 11% of all commands used, and has more than twice as much usage as the #2 entry on the list, Save.

    "Beyond the top 10 commands or so, however, the curve flattens out considerably. The percentage difference in usage between the #100 command ("Accept Change") and the #400 command ("Reset Picture") is about the same in difference between #1 and #11 ("Change Font Size") This is what makes creating the new UI challenging--people really do use a lot of the breadth of Office and beyond the top 10 commands there are a lot of different ways of using the product."

  • Michael Straight said...

    (I kept getting an error message when I tried to post that message with the link to Jensen Harris's website - you'll have to google it if you want to follow up. It's pretty interesting reading if you have any interest in software interface design.)

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