No Time To Play

Weekly Links #54: the big GUI rant

by on Jan.26, 2015, under News, Off-topic

It’s a week with no links again, so if you don’t mind I’ll take the time to rant on a topic that’s been obsessing me for a long time now. Be warned that this is only tangentially related to games.

But first, a signal boost.

I’ve never played Glitch, but I heard of it closing down when they released their assets into the public domain (a great initiative), by virtue of hanging around with the Open Game Art crowd.

Turns out, a friend of mine seeks funding to create what she’s describing as a text-based prequel to Glitch. And while I dunno about the project, Generic Geek Girl‘s portfolio is enough of a recommendation for me. Take a look.

Now, on to the main topic for today: graphical user interfaces. Fasten your seatbelts.

If you ask a present-day programmer why graphical user interfaces look the way they do, with desktops and icons and windows and menus (what they call the WIMP paradigm), they’re likely to explain you how people can more easily learn to use software if it all looks the same and works the same, how they can explore the interfaces and apply their experience from one application to the next. How everyone is familiar with that type of interface by now, even indirectly, and it’s what people have come to expect.

And it’s all utterly wrong.

I had the opportunity to chat with a software salesman, who made a living getting outfits such as dental work laboratories to buy ultra-specialized business management software. You know the type: hideous Visual Basic applications with a hundred buttons slapped more or less at random over a big window, each in a different color. We had a chat about why her merchandise was made that way, and… wish I could say her answer surprised me.

Ordinary people are frightened by the grey uniformity of Windows apps.

Wait, what? Frightened? Yup… most laymen are intimidated by computers. I blame decades of portrayal in the media as all-powerful electronic brains that rule the world, but never mind that now. A bit of color and life in a GUI helps a lot to change that preconception. Like in, you know, games. Or web pages. Or… like in Android.

Gee, I wonder why mobile devices are already overtaking PCs in sales.

And that’s not all. For years now, I’ve been trying to teach mom how to use a computer. I tried to teach other people too, but not as extensively, so she’s my favorite case study. Kind of a small sample, I know, but read on and tell me it doesn’t sound familiar.

Menu bars have been invented to make all the commands of a software program discoverable by the user, right? Joke’s on you, because your average computer user has never noticed windows have menu bars, let alone tried to click on them. They claim toolbars were invented for quick access, but I’m pretty sure it was because if it’s not on the screen all the time, it might as well not exist for the user. Not that toolbar buttons are that great either, because people never remember what this or that icon stands for. There are tooltips… but see above: you have to hover your mouse over a control for a second for a tooltip to appear. I bet most people never think of it.

There’s a corollary to the above: since most people can’t remember toolbar icons they saw yesterday, do you really believe they’ll recognize them in another application? Because in my experience, they don’t. Every single app out there might have New, Open and Save, in the same menu, on the same toolbar buttons and with the same keyboard shortcuts… and people will learn them anew EVERY SINGLE TIME. I’m not the only one who noticed that, either.

You might as well just teach them those key combos right away. They may even find it easier. I know people who still swear by the WordPerfect keymap — a user interface created some 35 years ago, before Apple decided to make things “easy”. Which is an euphemism for sweeping complexity under the carpet instead of mitigating it.

And yes, one of the things that confuse people about computers is having many different ways to accomplish the same thing. Which is a bit of a problem, since people are differently-abled and of different minds, so you need those alternatives. I’m not sure how to solve this particular quandary.

But I do know one thing: modern GUIs based on the desktop metaphor are absurdly complex. The APIs are complex. The code behind those APIs is complex. The result is a bewildering mess that gives most people a headache (programmers are not neurotypical, to be painfully frank).

If we really, really want to help computer users, software needs to be reimagined. Keep apps simple. Take those 20% of commands that do 80% of the work, and put them on-screen at all times — as text! The rest? Might as well be hidden behind a command line. For the advanced user, that may even be better than menus and dialogs. Less discoverable, yes, but advanced users know to read the manual, too…

Stop treating all people and all applications the same, and we might actually get somewhere for a change.


Creative Commons License
Weekly Links #54: the big GUI rant by Felix Pleșoianu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


2 Comments for this entry

  • Kantuck Nadie Nata-akon

    A fine article! As one who has operated in computes, since 1981 I have seen so many changes. From Wordstar, to WordPerfect — and yes I was one of those who used the Wordperfect keyboard interface, and still pine for it to this day. Why? Because it worked very well.

    The GUI interface of today is, I agree a joke as bad as a poorly written scatological joke. For example Libreoffice. I love it, I use it every day but to be honest. I have used about 1% of the icons, and only use the menu commands myself. Right-click is the main means for me on nearly all software.

    That 20% you mentioned should have a standard types of icons — a printer for ‘print’ a diskette for save, and so forth. But look at a Libreoffice tool-bar. I couldn’t even give you an idea what 90% are.

    On the office’s Thunderbird toolbar, I’ve set it as text only. It took the office users only a short time to know exactly what each does and now I just left on the ones we use, the remainder was removed.

    Firefox is the same; we’re given that new interface, but I moved it back to the standard. However for my toolbar, I have the home, print, back and forth icons, and full screen, and ‘progress of ongoing downloads. Only add-ons I need is showing; CSFire, Ghostry, Grab my books, Noscripts’ Forbidden, and temporary scripts, and Nosquint’s control. The rest is all taken out.

    But if we rant upon GUIs, can we rant upon web interfaces? The current emphasis is

    #1 low-contrast fonts on white backgrounds, — which I’m seeing in about everything now. Even books are being printed with low-contrast fonts.

    #2: The use of some odd icons that Firefox is having problems rendering at times due to a bug in it’s portfolio.

    I have no problems with change, but change should be tempered with intelligence. Why low-contrast fonts? They should be used only for ‘fine print’ where you don’t wish to bring emphasis to words, not for the /entire web site/ You can tell there’s some frustration when you have add ons such as Firefox’s ‘no squint’ that sets fonts back to the color you desire — which should be pure black, and Chromes contrast adjustments.

    Oh and your site works wonderful. Full white on black background is just fine to read.

    Again, a fine article, as always from you.

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