Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Open Source User Interfaces

Why can't open source user interfaces be, well, more consistent?

Don't get me wrong - I love open source; but inconsistent interfaces really tarnish the experience for me.

Computers, operating systems, software and interfaces are all a means to an end. That end might be to write a letter, check your email, or play a game, but generally speaking, getting on the computer isn't the end itself.

A good user interface lets us get on with what we want to do in a timely manner. If the interface is consistent with other, similar applications, then we can dive straight into a task without having to learn a new interface. Conversely, a poor user interface can be a real impediment between the user and the task that they're trying to perform.

The developers of firefox have the right idea. The software is cross platform, but feels like an app that is developed for the OS. From the point of view of an MS Windows user, the menus look and behave like real MS Windows. The open and save dialogs are the MS Windows common dialogs. In KDE, the app looks like a KDE app. On a mac the app looks like a mac app. Because the developers of firefox have spent time putting on the UI polish.

Once you have the consistency, you get more efficient at performing the mundane steps between starting up the computer and performing the task that you switched on the computer for in the first place.

Common actions include opening a file, saving a file, closing a file, closing an application. There are often several different ways of performing each of the common tasks - including clicking a button, clicking a menu, using a keyboard shortcut (Ctrl+O), or using accelerator keys (Alt, F, O).

Take away the consistency, and in a small but significant way, you are alienating your users. The beginners, who have only learned one of the methods, get confused and discouraged, and unless you are lucky will leave your program for one that seems more familiar. The power-users will get annoyed that they can't use their tried and tested shortcuts in achieving their goals.

With cross-platform software, there are (at least) two possible approaches to UI design. The first is: you could make the UI consistent across all platforms. The second is you could make the UI on each platform consistent with that platform.

The first approach is probably easier from a developer's point of view, but probably not the best from the end user's point of view, because most end users don't work cross platform.

The Gimp is a nice, free (open source) alternative to photoshop; but every time I try to get into it, I feel lost. Ok, so the menus look a bit like my native Windows menus, but using the file dialogs is like stepping into a foreign country. Nothing is familiar. What is generally an automatic process for me (navigating to a folder and providing a filename) suddenly becomes something that I'm forced to learn again from scratch.

The gimp uses GTK to provide their user interface. The GTK library is cross platform so the developers of an application don't have to worry about making the interface work on different platforms. But it would be nice if the GTK library could use native UI elements instead of emulating them.

No comments: