Light me up

November 29, 2006

Many computer geeks (especially ones who remember “old good” Windows 98 times) believe that animation effects are just a waste of resources. Indeed, even in Windows 9X menu animation mostly used to be as an eye candy feature with nearly no practical need. The more, popular Linux distros already offer XGL-powered interfaces featuring various transition effectswhich might be nice looking but mostly disturbing and completely useless. Nevertheless there’re many examples of how animation effects may really increase (not decrease!) usability and help user.

Here we would talk about just one effect of that kind: Phosphor (and a  similar one, called spotlight).

Phosphor” is a name given to a set of controls with “afterglow” effects by Microsoft research team. Phosphor video shot

Phosphor controls attract user’s attention by applying fadeout lightning effects to controls which have just been changed. Ideally, thich should give user information about control status change without distracting one from his work. As researches indicate, such types of transition effects are indeed helpful and no wonder they’re widely used in various AJAX sites/applications. For example, WordPress highlights just added tags to draw ones attention to them or Google reader lights up feeds when new posts arrive. Even though the most popular use of afterglow is lighting up newly added elements, there’re much more ways to apply them.
Just read the research I’ve already mentioned or take a look at the corresponding video.

Although highlight-afterglow effects are widely used on the web I know no Desktop application which uses them. Probably a reason behind this is a lack ofcorresponding controls or Desktopsoftware developers are less sensitive to early adoptation ofinnovative technologies.

P.S.: real-life samples of afterglow controls I’ve seen often use light yellow color for highlighting, not toxic green as in Microsoft video.


Hall of shame: Zimbra

November 25, 2006

Probably the worst UI feature of Zimbra, online collaboration suite is this one:

zimbra

Tabs for calendar, inbox, etc is nothing wrong, but creating a tab without actual content which instead behaves like a “log off” button is a weird idea. Tabs must not behave like buttons and that have already been pointed out lots of times (well, similas behavior of old ASPack has already been mentioned in Interface hall of shame).

Tag: don’t use inappropriate controls in order to create virtual visible consistency.


Hall of shame: MusicIP Mixer

November 24, 2006

This is the first of “hall of shame” blog post series. Here I plan to describe some design mistakes in existing software in order to prevent other developers from repeating them. I’ll try not to concentrate on “correct” solutions as copying good ideas without understanding why they’re good is just a waste of time.

So, our today hero is MusicIP Mixer:
main window

This program is designed as a player and a tool, helping you to select similarly sounding files (MIP uses a specially calculated footprint for that purpose) .

Let’s take a look at the main window.
First of all, it has a locked minimal size which is set by default. Nevertheless you may try increasing the Filters/Playlists area (left) and enjoy some redrawing bugs. Sooth to say “GUI art” is an inevitable part of many Windows applications but in most cases visual glitches of this process are less obvious. Besides, on resizing it becomes obvious that album image bitmap is resized with the most promitive algorithm (nearest neighbor I guess) so you may enjoy blocky distorted pictures in all their beauty.

Now let’s take a look below at the set of controls. First of all, controls create no visual feedback like i.e. Windows Media Player’s buttons which highlight on hover. Next, a progress bar doesn’t look like a control so you cannot tell if it could adjust track position unless you try it yourself.

The round green button is another freaky thing. Not even mentioning a weird selection of mnemonisc and its similarity to Linspire’s CNR icon by Everaldo. Try to guess what it does. Have any ideas? “Press this button once to begin scanning your collection. Press it a second time to listen to a mix based on currently playing song.” Isn’t there a button named “Mix” on the left-top cornet? Oh, this one is different…
Now try to answer a simple question: what does this button do in the middle of a classic set of controls (Prev,Play,Stop, etc…)? Not even mentioning that pressing it may freeze your machine for few seconds (well, slow interface feedback seems to be an inevitable part of this program anyway).

Also, by default all your collection is organized by genre, a tag which is most likely to be missing or incorrect unless you’ve bought all of your music from a single publisher and never grabbed CDs yourself or downloaded music from the net. So, prepare facing the fact that it doesn’t even try to group similar genres (which is a relatively complex program by itself).

That’s not everything for sure as describing all the “features” may take ages.
I really recommend you examining the program for various OS UI design guideline violations. Seriously. Knowing what’s broken is a big step to fixing it.

Now let’s take a look at preferences dialog:
MusicIP preferences

All 12 (sic!) tabs are groupped alphabetically. Good idea. I’d really loved to see this dialog translated 🙂 Well, when logic is not involved, alphabetical sorting might do its work.
Besides, pages like one on the shot are not uncommon: putting a group of two radio buttons together with two lines of text obviously required some serious design skills from developers.

The dialog’s minimal height is fixed, although most of it is just a waste of space for the vast majority of tabs.
Overall, thedialog’s aestetics seriously suffers. Even taking into account that MusicIP Mixer is a cross-platform application, OS developers often provide interface guidelines which here seem to be completely ignored. For example, Windows and Apple guidelines both insist on dialog buttons be placed on the right of the form and not on the center of it. One may even easily find exact spacing in case he’s afraid to place them too close (or too far) from the edges!

Now just few more shots of dialogs you may face in this wonderful application:
dialog

A good sample of poorly designed dialog with meaningless information. Guess how many people would read this text 🙂 I’d say “a few”.

dialog

Now try to guess why “Clear” button is located so close to “OK” and what does it “clear”. And why is it located next to “Add Condition”? Thunderbird filter creation process is also not a masterpiece of design but it at least gives you a clear idea about what does what.

Let’s go further:
dialog

Typical “Press [Start] to Start” dialog. This one also features four lines of text and a text link to the privacy policy. Well, it’s actually a link but you won’t find it out unless you hover it 🙂 Besides, does one really need to know that the company’s policy is located on http://blah-blah-blah/0_privacy.html and not in a different place? Are you sure?
(zero privacy in URL… that sounds promising)

I’d really recommend the program’s developers immediately start doing something about their UI. Like hiring a decent specialist or at least paying a bit more attention to UI guidelines. Apple one might be agood point to start.

As for you, readers, I really hope you’ll never create “masterpieces” of that kind…


Tango Fridays, results

November 23, 2006

Thanks to an initiative of Jakub “Jimmac” Steiner (who now works in Novell) famous Tango icon suite is currently being improved within a Tango Fridays project:

Tango icons, refined

The goal is clear: make icons look pixel-perfect under any supported resolution which is a tought task indeed, especially taking into account that Inkscape is not the best tool for this kind of work. But just look at the results! The technique level is approaching the one of Mezich, one of my favorite icon designers (mostly because of his pixel-perfect icons) and is definitely better than downsampled bitmap icons used in Tango before.

For the time of its existance Tango desktop suite has passed a way from a set of blurry pictograms to a serious guidelines, resulting a series of interesting icon suites. Just to mention default Tango set and famous Tangerine (Ubuntu) icon set, created by the same team that worked on default Windows XP icons.

So far Tango and its derivatives seem to be the only good set of icons, available to both commercial and opensource software developers for free and its quality is good enough even to compete with some commercial icon sets.


Are features really needful?

November 23, 2006

The functionality vs. usability case is not new. The more you dig, the more you understand, that situation in this field is quite interesting. For example, people often overestimate a need for certain features when they purchase a product. For example, most ipod video owners don’t use one for viewing movies. Or, as Nokia research shows, people prefer to buy cell phones with a built-in MP3 player, but never actually use them for listening to the music.

People still prefer to make their choices based on a list of features i.e. the more features, the better the product looks for them. However, after using a feature-rich product for a while them might feel a need for the one with less features.

Why so? As I have already mentioned, the need for a certain feature is often overestimated. Another point is that the more features the product has, the more difficult it is to operate it. Surealy, that’s mostly a problem unsolved by interface designers and industrial designers, but we see this daily: Chinese mp3 players with a zillion of features, Cell phones capable of doing whatever you want (at least, in theory) and so on. Now recall, what percent of your Cell phone’s features do you use daily? And what about a DVD player or microwave oven (does your monther know what all the fancy features are for?)

Less is more and I doubt this motto would turn outdated in the near future…


Ribbon goes wild

November 22, 2006

As you might already know, Redmond software giant has just launched a new version of its office suite, which has an innovative interface called Ribbon. The thing is that Ribbon seems to be a huge leap forward when compared to classic toolbar/menu UI combination due to its elegance and simplicity.

So, even better news is that today Microsoft has started licensing a new Office interface to third-party developers. The license is pretty fair: you may use new UIin any applications you want as soon as it complies with the spec and does not compete directly with Microsoft’s office products.

Here is a bit more info on the topic and if digging a bit deeper you may also find an interesting document, containing the preview version of Office 2007 UI design guidelines:

Office 2007 UI guidelines draft

So far it only has 16 pages of text, mostly describing Ribbon resizing routine but in the nearest future a complete version should be available.

At present time Microsoft provides no line of code for fast implementation of a new GUI, but some software developers already offer Ribbon controls which you may use to start building your next-gen interfaces right now.

I really hope, that unlike many other good ideas the concept of Ribbon would not be disconsidered and we would see its full power in the nearest future.


Hello world!

November 22, 2006

Greetings, stranger.

I am Taras (SacRat) Brizitsky, former physicist and skinner who now makes living of his modest interface design knowledge… That’s basicly all. Thus, the blog is completely and entirely dedicated to the things I’m interested most: interfacces, ergonomics and design.

And yes, nevermind the stupid blog name: aren typical Windows applications’ dialogs really better?