Liking a User Interface

I think it’s important to differentiate between a likable user interface and a good one. A user interface can be likable and bad. It can be good and not likable.

I got a comment from my last post that said because someone liked the UI it was good. I disagree. A good UI supports you in all actions, at all phases of learning the program. Because it happens to fit the particular set of features you use now and the state in learning you are in now does not, ever, make an interface a good interface.

And I did not mean to imply that the Office 2007 user interface was entirely without merit. It attempts to address the fact we’d outgrown graphic toolbuttons, and toolbars as the sole organizational item. Those of us that could organize our toolbars pretty much liked them. Other users were often stuck with menus.

But menus have been the backbone of all of our learning programs and, as I understand it, screen readers. Bill McCarthy has a great post with an exercise to show you how deeply screwed up Office 2007 is to the Windows reader. He compares it to Notepad. If someone can compare to Office XP and post, I’ll be happy to link. Accessibility is important on two levels – it certainly retains its focused on people that can be enabled or disabled by specifics of the world around them.

If we are average in sight and dexterity, we expect computers to react to our own level of ability – we expect that the mouse adjust to our dexterity, the keyboard sized to our finger reach, and the font to be a readable size. If we are slightly off average, we compensate with larger fonts or a large trackball. If we fall outside the anticipated norms, we fall off a cliff, as shown in Bill’s exercise. Computers have the capacity to be a more level playing field- to extend enabling further.

And the second level at which accessibility is important is during the lifetime of people with average abilities. Almost all of us will have limited ability when we are young and old. Many of us will pass through stages of temporary limited ability. A few years ago when my arm got wrecked I had my mom (a programmer in her own right) reformat my code. I could write the code, but I couldn’t quite handle arrangng the declarations with one parameter per line the way I wanted to deliver.

More attention needs to be paid to making computers physically easier to use. It will also save some people from life changing RSI injuries.

Which was one point of the post.

The other was that much as the Office 2007 user interface sucks, I do not think it is beyond redemption.

- Add back the menus as an option and the default appearance when you start

- Raise the logo to a button and have a timed “look here” toolbar/arrow (although I’d really prefer to see those things in a ribbon page)

- Have the Alt popups also include short cut keys (Ctl-I, Ctl-B) so these are discoverable

- Fix accessibility, which might be a fully separate user interface for screen readers

- Allow the font on the ribbon to be changed

- Have the ribbon bar learn my habits. Do not collapse Word Count which I use daily.

- Re-prioritize the Home ribbon page so the ugly and rarely useful styles take up ½ the screen width and Cut/Copy, and all the very common formatting items remain small icons

- Allow me to promote commonly used items to the ribbon. I use Paste/Special/Unformatted all the time and its buried

- Rethink the ribbon in light of the wasted space on each side of the document on a standard monitor. Pull things like styles back into sidebars. Use this space with abandon. Consider allowing me to move ribbon pages there, or at the very least create a magnificently large and beautiful set of shortcuts.

- Fix the Quick Access toolbar. It’s a good idea gone bad. It’s as far as you can get onscreen from where I’m usually typing, there are not displayed shortcuts, and it uses small icons. And absolute ton of work could be done here.

And those are the thoughts of someone not a professional UI person. If the Ribbon solved accessibility, used space effectively, morphed automatically to how I work, it does have potential.

But right now, it sucks.

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