More on UI and Navigation

So my previous rant on UI and Icons and such touched off a lively discussion. I thought I would give more information on what I was really thinking when I wrote what I wrote.

On 12/1/03 7:47 PM, “Sarah Creem-Regehr” wrote

As for the whole icon tirade/debate, I feel like I have to defend them if only because I study visual perception and not language. I don’t know of any real psych studies for or against but I do think your average computer user likes pictures better than words. But there is research that spatial context influences memory. So, Glenn makes a valid observation about the spatially messed up icons”

While I might agree that “the average computer user likes pictures better than words,” I wonder if what they like and what is best for them are the same thing. Is it similar to children and broccoli? Though they don’t like it, broccoli is good for them. 🙂

I think about a handful of examples from my personal experience. They hardly amount to a scientifically significant study, but they helped me form this opinion. An older secretary, Ginny, who I knew at a previous job is quite competant at vi. Despite its horrible interface, she knows how to do the most basic tasks in it and get her work done. Likewise she uses troff and other byzantine computer programs that are just too horrible to ponder. Before someone thinks I’m advocating such awful interfaces: I’m not. I’m just putting a data point out on the spectrum. Ginny has minimal ability to just go out and learn new software, but she learned vi, troff, and a bunch of other rot and she can manage it. I would argue that there’s no interface so bad that people won’t use it when they must.

Another data point that is similar is my 70-year-old mother. She’s got the latest Windows XP and all that nonsense. Icons, toolbars, and pop-ups up the ying yang. However, she is hardly more adventurous or more capable than Ginny. In fact, I think the two of them are essentially equal in computing abilities. They learn a few common tasks by rote, and simply repeat those tasks as they need to. If I show my mom how to do something by “clicking on this icon, then click ok, then click here,” then that’s how she’ll do it every time. It’s little different from the person who told Ginny “press Esc, then type :wq and hit return.”

My mom has experimented and learned how to do a few things on her own. Invariably, however, she goes to menus and reads them. And, as the guy who has to teach her things remotely when I can’t see her screen, I always refer to the menus, because I can count on their behavior. I can say “look at the top of the window for the word ‘file.’ Click it””

I think Nuts mentioned my favorite good example: Framemaker. Everything you can do in the interface can be done from the keyboard. You never need the mouse if you don’t want it. The keystrokes are all pretty intuitive, too. It’s an easy system to learn.

So I don’t advocate what Dale thought I meant: replacing all of Visio’s toolbar icons with itty bitty words. I really advocate a nice tree of commands, organized logically, and arranged in the traditional pull-down menu format. Like broccoli, I think it is good for us, if not as attractive and fun. If it’s the only way to do things, it forces you to be efficient and prevents you from being distracted. That’s good.