Icon search engine

August 10, 2007

One more offspring of Web 2.0 era: Iconfinder icon search engine.

It lets developers and designers find free icons with certain metaphors. Pretty useful stuff if you don’t mind an idiotic logo. I’m not sure how legally clear the icons it founds are (although many are claimed to be released under GPL or CC), but for me it’s an interesting metaphor evaluation tool.

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Hall of shame: Apple Safari

August 3, 2007

There’s one interesting thing about Safari that I used to ignore (likely because I rarely use Safari at all) before. As some local developers have pointed out, Safari does not create clear tab-content relations (like Firefox does) because of using inverted tabs:

safari tabs

As you may see, the tabs are simply upside down, which might look OK from aesthetically, but is definitely not a good design solution.


Prototyping with Visio

August 2, 2007

When creating non-interactive GUI prototypes in Windows, you don’t have many choices. Surely, you may try playing with one of numerous specialized tools, but none of them is mature enough to be useful even for basic design mock-ups.

Actually, sooner or later you come to Visio. It doesn’t provide you with pixel-perfect results like ones you may get with Photoshop (or any other bitmap image editor), but it has nearly no completers when it comes to fast iterative GUI design.
The easiest way to start is using build-in Software stencil library. At first, it looks amazing as you have dozens of controls you may easily put on a form and create basic forms in minutes:

Basic Visio form
It’s even better that these forms look exactly like ones in Windows XP and that only increases the “wow factor”. Actually, if all you need to do is making some basic layouts for simple XP applications you may stop reading here and go experimenting yourself.

XP Wizard mock-up

The devil hides in details, so sooner or later you start understanding that a build-in software stencil is not that much good as some things are simply missing. Just it would help you a little on designing a web 2.0 site UI or prototyping a GUI with complex controls (like Ribbon). In order to complete this task you may need to skip all the nice looking Luna stuff and start working on wireframe prototyping level.

On this stage you may just use a Rectangle tool or use any third-party stencil set. However, the more you work, the more you feel a need for your own “constructor”, which covers your current tasks. Using an existing set as a starting point might be a good idea, but you’ll have to re-create missing elements anyway.

Visio with custom control set

Creating a custom control set has other advantages. For example, your own controls may have different sizes, shapes and better fit target application’s look and feel. Such flexibility is usually unavailable when build-in Software stencil set, but comes at a price…

Visio alignment hell
One of major problems with Visio as a GUI prototyping tool is its inability to align elements properly. So you’re either increasing overall mess with lots of guides (which are usually required for every single form) or end up playing with semi-useless Align shapes control in 200+ percent zoom mode or testing your luck with nearly as inaccurate keyboard align (forget of smart guides or alignment logic…)

That’s it, about 50% of all time you work in Visio you waste on fighting with layout. Thus, in order to create prototypes which with “fake screen” level of details (i.e. with all proper aligns, font sizes) it might be a good idea to use bitmap image editor or pagination software, but for intermediate designs Visio is still a worthy solution.


Vista icons: could they be better?

July 18, 2007

No vector icons. OK, bitmaps are usually large enough. But are they worth looking?

Iconfactory, the creators of original XP icon theme has made a lot in order to give Vista a brand new look. However, what we actually see is far not as good:

computers.jpg

Just compare the same computer’s icon from Iconfactory portfolio with the one from an actual Vista.

The reason, I suppose, is simple: unwilling to pay for a complete icon suite from Iconfactory Microsoft has just taken a sample set and made the rest by its own designers (obviously far not that skilled). As a result, we see lots of elegant and nice looking icons (like Recycle bin) aside with ugly, blocky and aliased ones you’ll unlikely wish to enlarge.


Vista, the next “Millenium”?

July 15, 2007

Last week I had a chance to make a test drive of Microsoft’s latest effort in Desktop OS development, Windows Vista. Actually, after reading numerous reviews and/or previews I had a mixed feeling about a need to look at it at all, but my designer’s curiosity has won. So, in short, what do we get on upgrading?

Pros:

  • Vista Aero UI is pretty. Really pretty. Just as much as some people love Wincustomize stuff they would love Aero, especially its clean skin and small details like Window header blur or “file flare” animation on copy.
  • Explorer is redesigned for good. Breadcrumb control (previously actively used by GNOME Nautilus) makes navigation more efficient and file thumbnails are more useful than before.
  • Aero UI has finally got rid of this nasty “GUI art” (redraw problems) and thus looks a bit more pleasant.
  • Gadgets and Desktop search are nice addons to old XP Desktop.

Cons:

  • It’s damned slow! On a modern PC with an excellent video card, modern processor and 2 Gb of RAM it’s visibly slower than XP. The difference is subtle at first, but the more you work, the more you notice annoying control delays. Besides, “eating” half a gigabyte of RAMjust after start…
  • Aero is annoying. In a few hours “wow” effects stops and you understand all its ugliness. All this sexy animation, stripes and highlight is very impractical and non-functional. The difference between active and background windows merely exists, soaped backgrounds make you mad, rolodex view is merely usable and taskbar hints are sometimes lost. You may return to the simplified non-transparent version of UI, but it’s times less eye candy and just ugly. Even with hardware acceleration minor graphical quirks exist, like windows, slowly restoring its content after minimizing…
  • The new UI is very inconsistent. You’ll have to learn things anew and controls seem to be located in the most bizzare places…

Overall, it’s disappointing. After 5 years of development we come up with a merely usable product (software, unwilling to operate properly, “are you sure?” anti-user protection on each step, slow operation…) with very arguable advantages over XP. Do you really want Vista? Try Mac or Linux first… Seriously. Macs had most of this stuff in Tiger for years and they’re more functional. Linux offers a competing Desktop with a much less price. And what about Vista, I’m not even sure Microsoft would be able to fix all the quirks with its service packs, so we may probably have to wait for the upcoming Windows 2009 or whatever it delivers next.


Close me not: Camino usability glitch

July 2, 2007

Even though I do like Camino browser a lot it has a glitch sometimes making me mad.

Just like Firefox, Opera and any other modern Web browser it uses Tabbed UI for navigating page sets. That’s generally OK (I wouldn’t discuss tab-related problem here, besides many users get used to this style of working).

Camino tabs

So, what’s wrong with the picture above?

First of all, the “close” button on each tab is located on the left, just like it is on any Aqua window. Nothing special, actually, especially as it’s quite an expected behavior and Safari (OS X bundled browser) does exactly the same:

Safari tab

The problem comes when you try to do something with tabs. One of possible features includes easy bookmarking by using drag’n’drop technique, familiar to any modern OS user and widely popular on OS X:

drag and drop

The thing is that in order to bookmark the site you must drag it by the site’s icon. Ooops. What happened? You just clicked “close” instead of bookmarking?

The cause of the problem is simple: Camino developers have just placed destructive (close) and non-destructive (site favicon) controls too close to each other. Strange enough, as this principle is largely covered by Apple HIG.

So, what possible solutions might be?

The first and non-elegant one is placing “close” on the right part of the tab (Windows way). Non-consistent, not “Aqua”, but it works. At least, Opera and Firefox find no problems doing so:

Opera tabs

A kind of “who cares?” solution.

Another one might be a bit more elegant. It doesn’t solve the problem completely, but creates a good workaround: just instead of using favicons for drag’n’ drop operations Camino developers might have made the whole tab draggable, so users may avoid dragging tabs by favicons in favor of other, less “dangerous” areas.

Edit: submitted as bug 386574.


Who made who: Apple vs Microsoft vs all others

June 20, 2007

The “who stole from whom” on Microsoft vs. Apple UI discussion seem to renew again with the release of Windows Vista and the upcoming release of OS X 10.5 “Leopard”. With implementation of hardware destkop acceleration in Linux (thanks to Beryl/Compiz project) overall mess has only increased, so some freaks even state that Apple “stole” cube effect from Linux (sic!).

Fortunately, we have internet, books and other media to help us find the truth out.

Short story

As you may already know, today’s GUI is a far offspring of Star UI developped by Xerox PARC. That’s it: during the 70th, PARC used to be a blacksmith of what we now call “graphical user interfaces”. Nevertheless, with Xerox losing interest to its own computers and concentrating on copier machines people started leaving.

If you try to trace biographies of some of PARC’s leading UI researches you’ll also ind out that many of them used to work in Apple as well. This looks familiar, right? Apple not only managed to get some of the best designers in the industry, but also got rights to use some graphical interfaces already created by Xerox.

So, what does Microsoft have to do with all this? The thing is that Apple has licensed Microsoft some of its UI in return for some investments and the promise to continue development of the Office suite for Mac.

So, Apple made it first. But even before Apple there was PARC. Microsoft “lent” some ideas from Apple and often had a “catching” role. But if you think Microsoft is researchers are only working with photocopiers and steal Apple GUI (I’m not talking on Linux as in general it has brought nothing new into the UI world) try to look at this page 😉

Long story

Some references you may find useful:

Further reading

To anyone having interest in the history of graphical interfaces let me recommend some interesting reading sources:

http://www.designinginteractions.com/ Site, dedicated to a book with the same name, “Designing Interactions”. Even though somechapters are available for free I do strongly recommend buying the book itself. Some of its most interesting parts cover the history of the very first computers’ creation, the appearance of the Desktop metaphor and interviews with people benind these wonderful inventions.

http://www.guidebookgallery.org/ – a visual guide to the history of modern operating systems. Ever wanted to compare interfaces of Apple II and Windows 1.0? Go and try it yourself. Must be bookmarked by any GUI