Questions about UI Design

There was a good comment full of questions on my last post and as I composed a response, it became big enough, I thought I’d better make it a full post. That said, holy loaded questions! At least they didn’t include how to find happiness, fame and fortune! 😉 Seriously, the short answer really is easy: I don’t know. The longer answer is that I have some ideas, but I’m still not sure. Others smarter than I will probably chuckle at my naiveté, but here goes:

Q: One thing that puzzles me though is how one can successfully apply this concept on an evolving project (like Mac Office or any other mature app)?

A: I think the way you apply this with any project is that you design the UI first, because that’s what the user will experience. For example with a web UI that means building a HTML page. For a Vista application that means building the XML files that represent the UI in a designer tool. For a Cocoa application that means building the UI structure with Interface Builder. For a Carbon application that means building the UI in Photoshop and committing the design to code later. When your UI designers don’t produce “code-able artifacts” or stuff that goes directly into the application, this just means the developers have to work a bit harder to make the feature a reality.

Q: Word for instance is highly criticized for feature bloat.

A: I think you are picking on Word a bit too much. 😉 Seriously, consider any application that has been successfully selling for 20+ years. … Okay, there’s not many, so let’s say for 10+ years. Do they all have lots of features? Of course they do. Even younger applications like say OmniGraffle 4 or Final Cut Pro, they all have lots of features. Does this make them intrinsically bad? I don’t think so. Providing customers access to your functionality is a challenge with any large professional software tool. The challenge is really this: How do you expose these features in such a way that the beginner can step right in and be productive and be gently guided to the more powerful features, but at the same time allowing the power user the ability to simply rock and roll with the tool and be in the “flow” of the creative work they are doing? This is a tough question. Some folks have said that you simply shouldn’t build in so much functionality, and some how that makes it better for everyone. Perhaps they’d like to see a bunch of smaller specifically purposed applications. We’ve had this idea before on the Mac OS and it was called OpenDoc. We have it today in some ways with the many Web applications online. If you have many cohesive, loosely coupled applications and you are building one of these applications, when do you stop building one application and start building another? How do they all communicate? What is the user experience like? Does this make life better for the user? What if you create a new application, but your competitor simply adds the feature to an already existing tool? These kind of questions do not even get asked until the product has been successful for many years and already has many features. I think the idea of many small specifically purposed tools makes sense in the physical world, but doesn’t fully translate to software tools.

Q: Why hasn’t the formatting toolbar been removed from Word when the formatting palette was introduced – or else why not in the next major release?

A: Obviously I can’t talk about the next version of Mac Office (and remember I’m not a designer for Office and I wasn’t part of the design of the formatting palette), but I can easily guess that in a customer base as diverse as Office, I am sure there are those who prefer the formatting toolbar over the formatting palette.

Q: And speaking of tools, why are there so many toolbars?

A: This is a great question. I think most Mac users like to think about UI design and especially for tools they use all the time like Office. Jensen Harris is one of the UI designers for Win Office 2007 and I’d recommend taking a day or two and readying his blog about how the Win Office team has gone about designing the new Win Office UI. It’s very interesting, at least for me. He addresses dealing with “the toolbar issue” throughout, but I think these posts will more specifically answer your questions:

Combating the Perception of Bloat (Why the UI, Part 3)
Ye Olde Museum Of Office Past (Why the UI, Part 2)
For Sale By Owner
The Biggest Loser
The Size Of Things

I hope that provides some food for thought. These are great questions and I love the discussion. I really enjoy that so many Mac users care about this kind of stuff.

6 thoughts on “Questions about UI Design

  1. I’m looking forward very much to what you do with the next Mac Office design.A few months ago I’d have said the same about the Windows version; I’ve followed Jensen’s blog avldly and was very impressed with the work and the design and the thinking.Until we saw the Office 2007 screenshots when suddenly it felt as if all the good work was being unstitched again. For example, I applauded the determination to make features easier to find, it’s absolutely right, but now I defy you to look at Office 2007 and find how to open a document.Something went awry there, I feel, but perhaps it’s just me. I used to write about this sort of thing ten years ago in computer magazines; I swear it’s never been as lively and interesting a topic as it is now.William

  2. i would like a program where it’s easy to change skin of things. the same things get tiring after a while.

  3. Yeah, have an OS GUI that is as skinnable as napster or firefox. But add some changes in how it works also, not just how it looks.

  4. Hi David,good site, just featured you on TamsPalm:, as stated there, I am not sure if the new Office 2007 GUI is a good idea. I know people who go all bonkers when you move an icon on their desktop…they will for sure have great fun updating to Office 2007!I look forward(especially since I have a Microsoft Office Specialist in Outlook and PowerPoint) to seeing how this all turns out=).Best regardsTam Hanna

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