The Spectre of Math

September 2, 2009

The end of good UI

Filed under: Hacking,Linux,Technology — jlebl @ 4:53 pm

I think the UI for most GUI applications is turning into a badly written flash app. Looking over the new mockups of firefox 4.0. I feel the days of consistent UI are over (some could argue before they began). Nowadays every app will have different interface that will look flashy but will behave differently from every other app. Essentially the pioneers in this were mp3 and video players which brought us incomprehensible UI filled with flashy icons for years. They did to look like a stereo or vcr, both of which have really bad UI because they wanted to save on the number of buttons. A UI button is no longer a button, In fact you have to move your mouse around to figure out what things “do something” (where something is not well defined) to figure out which items in the UI may have some sort of function and could conceivably be clickable. The menu bar has disappeared altogether, because obviously giving things names is not the way things are done now. Apps are now supposed to have buttons with only icons, which look cool and don’t at all look like buttons. Imagine a printer or a copier. My print jobs keep getting canceled here since all the students keep canceling them by pressing the single big button with an incomprehensible icon on it if their job isn’t coming out immediately. The button looks like a check mark and does everything, including cancel a job, change priorities of jobs etc… Makes sense right.

Now this design, which has seem to have caught on in windows (I can never figure out what does the user interface allow me to do when I must set something up in vista), is making its way into free software. Now we have had some bad design decision in the past, but it’s getting worse. I’m afraid GNOME Shell will just be another flash app. We already have this weird behaviour in ubuntu that “to log out, you click on your name, which is next to an incomprihensible icon which afterwards one figures out probably means something like ‘leave’ or ‘exit’ or ‘run to the bathroom’ or ‘it is now safe to cross the street'” That makes total sense, doesn’t it?

Marketa showed me the new Word recently (not new now, but I don’t quite follow the windows world) It looks and feels like a webpage. Essentially, to do something you have to know where to find it. Consistency be damned. Someone says: but you learn how to use this interface and then it works well. Answer: you learn how to use any interface if you must, that doesn’t make it good. A good interface means that I can figure out an application without learning anything. That’s what consistency is for. Oh the other thing about the new Word? It is incredibly unresponsively slow (at least on marketa’s computer which is 1 year old). I remember typing a document in wordperfect on an XT used to be far more responsive. Try doing the following: You want to type a short letter and print it.

Do it with the technology circa 1989 or some such. OK, boot dos (a few seconds at most), start wordperfect (a few seconds) type the letter (as fast as you can type), print (a minute at most with lots of funky noises)

Do it with vista and ms word. OK, boot …. (go grab a coffee in the meantime) … oh darn, now I have to log in, do that (go grab a donut to pass the time) … ok click Word … (now eat your donut) … type your letter and notice that it feels as if you were typing a letter on a BBS back in 1989 over 300 baud modem (feel all nostalgic and wonder where you put that modem) … now you are done, so print (ok this is the only bit that works better and presumably faster now, unless you bought a high res inkjet that can’t print BW text quickly. You also miss the noise of the dot matrix printer that could wake a dead man).

Doing it with Ubuntu or some other Linux is the same experience except as vista except openoffice is more responsive to typing. Though I would probably start vim, type the text in, then run latex on it and get something far better looking than either openoffice or word can produce.

Still this type of job was essentially easier 20 years ago, and the computer felt more responsive then … oh but you didn’t have this flashy UI that you can’t figure out. Oh yeah, I forgot about that. The undergrads have probably canceled my print job thanks to the “one button with icon” type of UI, so I’ll go run back in my office to hit “print” again.

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