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I Am Skooter
So here's us, on the raggedy edge.
And did you get my message / On the People's Radio? I wrote it in Alberta /Across the prairie spine.
— Rheostatics, Northern Wish
April 10, 2007
Moving Targets in Interface Design

One of the fundamental differences between Windows and the Macintosh is the location of the menu bar. Put simply, the menus on your Mac will always be at the top of your primary screen in a white bar. They will always be in the same location.

Windows, by contrast, pins the menus to the top of the current window. The position, size and number of items displayed on the menus will move with the window’s position on the screen and depends on whether or not it’s maximized.

This is one example of the problem created by moving targets for user interfaces. The six little buttons on the right provide an even more dramatic one.

These screenshots are from Quotewerks, a quote building application that I use every day as one of two primary applications. To say I’m not fond of it is an understatement. It’s actually the better of the two though.

These six buttons are actually two rows of buttons which perform the same functions on different objects. The boxes in the top row will be familiar to most Windows users, and from left to right they minimize the window, swap between the maximized and non-maximized positions, and close the window.

The buttons in the second row perform the same functions in the same order but they are the document window controls. Quotewerks allows me to have five documents open at onnce, meaning that there could be up to five of these sets of buttons at any one time. Why they look different is an entirely separate issue from my main problem, which is where they are on the screen.

As an aside, I have yet to understand why Quotewerks limits me to five documents at once. It seems fairly arbitrary. On to the topic at hand though.

The Document Window

Each quote is a document contained in a window. The windows look like this:
Quotewerks Document, not maximized.

The orange circle superimposed on the image highlights the position of the document window controls—minimize, maximize and close. It’s worth noting here that not only do the boxes appear identical to the main application controls (visible in the upper right hand corner of the image.) Also worth noting is the order that key items appear from the top of the screen down: the main application menu, the icon based toolbar (offering various document controls) and the document window controls, then the document contents.

The Maximized Document Window

The next image shows the same document as a maximized window.
Quotewerks Document, maximized.

The orange circle indicates the same document window controls which have now moved to the far right hand side of the screen. This is perfectly normal behaviour for a Windows application, and while I personally find it disconcerting I recognize that millions of Windows users would not.

More critical is that two other things have happened. The document window controls have changed visually and more critically their relative position has changed on the screen. From top to bottom the key window elements are now the main application menu, the document window controls and the icon based toolbar, then the document contents.

Problems Created by the Document Window Controls

The document window controls now appear to belong to the entire application. This creates a vagueness of function that’s aggravated by the change in appearance. It also makes them very difficult to find.

I thrash around in the corner every day and at least once a day I click the application close box in the top right hand corner when I mean to only close a document window. Quotewerks is a particularly slow application to open and close (taking at least 3 minutes to do each), and as a result i lose a few minutes every day as a result of a poorly designed interface. This is despite the fact that I’m an extremely experienced user, and this is an application I work with every day to send at least ten quotes to our customers.

I find this particularly galling given that the behaviour is completely acceptable according to Windows standards.

This is just one example of how a poorly designed interface can create user confusion and lost productivity in a very real way.

Posted by skooter at 10:19 PM This entry is filed under Technology.
This entry is tagged: Information Architecture, Interaction Design, Mac, Microsoft, Quotewerks, Windows

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