In Search of Better User Interfaces

Opera’s Unwanted Functionality

I was just doing a bit of work in the Opera web browser, typingsome information into a web app’s text box, when I accidentallyde-selected the input box in the process of jumping betweenapplications. On my next keystroke the interface suddenly went toan archaic layout. It looked like something rendered in Netscape3.

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I had no idea how I did this, it was completely unwanted, andthe impact was extremely disruptive. Closing and restarting theapplication didn’t remove this sticky setting, and randomly (andsystematically) selecting what I thought would be the accidentalshortcut keys yielded no solution.

Now I had to waste time finding, and then turning off, a featurethat I didn’t want in the first place.

This brings to mind a couple of user interface issues:

  • All applications should have an undo stack (a transaction log,of sorts) that clearly logs and lists every notable app change -minimizing, maximizing, resizing, or changing options likerendering mode. If there was such an undo stack, I could jump toit, see the “Switch to User Stylesheet Rendering” transaction justoccurred moments ago – maybe even with a help link to see whatthat event type was and how I triggered it – and Icould roll it back. This is something I’ve wanted for years(neigh…decades) but of course have never had the time orresources to implement such a non-standard technique in my ownapps.
  • Having options like this – switching rendering modes -configured for a standard key (in this case Shift-G) isquestionable, and given the severity of the change it should reallyask for a confirmation of use. “You have selected the shortcutto switch to User stylesheet mode (Shift-G). Are you sure?“(with a checkbox allowing brave users to avoid theconfirmation in the future). It’s a bit of education and avoidancewrapped up in one.
  • Opera doesn’t indicate the shortcuts on many of their menuitems, including the style mode menu item (the culprits in thiscase), making it difficult to investigate possible causes.

While there is a minority of users who override site stylesheetswith their own, justifying the feature in Opera (though I’m notconvinced that it should be an everyday keystroke like Shift-G bydefault), this brings me to another user interface observation.

Highly Configurable Interfaces are Usually Detrimental

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Drawing from personal experience, I worked on a project quite afew years back where one developer insisted upon absoluteflexibility in the user interface – Every toolbar hadto be movable and dockable anywhere, every sidebar item drag anddroppable, every menu item configurable, every UI skinnable. It wasa nice cop out for us because we didn’t really have to put too muchthought into the interface, and could always justify it with thestock “the user can configure it how they want”. Stick some moretoolbars, statusbars, and panels in there because the user canclean it up according to their own needs, the logic went.

In the field, about 99.9% (more likely 100%) of the time thatpeople discovered this functionality it was to theirdetriment. Like thetaskbar-stuck-perilously-on-the-side-of-the-screen on your Aunt’sWindows 95 computer, it was just something that happened byaccident, and they didn’t know how to get it back the way it was:No one (or very few) did it on purpose, but there it wasterrorizing every computer user.

The first step of any support call for our app was to determinein what innovative ways the user managed to mess up their userinterface. After getting a visualization of the sidebar on thebottom, the icons all on the background, the toolbar on the right,some critical toolbars hidden, with the menus all jumbled and theicons all removed, the cleanup began.

On the next release a menu item to reset the interface to theinitial defaults was added, and on further releases mostinterface flexibility was removed (or alternately made much moredifficult to do – you had to be dedicated and informed if youreally wanted to change things. Someone is much more likely tounintentionally hit Shift-G with no input box focused than they areto accidentally go into the advanced preferences and set anoption).

The moral of the story is that customizable interfacesare seldom beneficial, and instead function as a lazy,non-committal cop-out by the developers and designers of theapplication.

Even the most fundamental element of our user experience -windowing – merits some analysis: Apart from Winamp and MediaPlayer, how often are apps in any configuration other thanmaximized or minimized I run with dual-monitors, and 99% of thetime one or both of them has a full screen application on them. My”windowing” is alt-tabbing through full-screen windows, and I copydata between apps using copy/paste, or, where dragging isnecessary, via the taskbar.

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