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Bad UI of the Week: The Mythical "is Like" Operator

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Humans are very good at associating objects and grouping them into categories, but these categories often vary greatly from person to person. In his latest article on bad user interfaces, David Chisnall takes a look at some examples.
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Bad UI of the Week: The Mythical "is Like" Operator

The most logical way of laying out a user interface is to group similar objects together. For example, putting controls for setting bold and underline attributes on a typeface together is obviously sensible. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it is very easy to forget that it’s an entirely subjective decision.

To take a real-world example, I recently discovered the supermarket where I regularly shop sells a selection of vegetarian patés. The reason it took me so long to discover this was that someone thought "vegetarian paté is like paté" and put it in the middle of the meat isle.

In my mind, the same "is like" operation says "vegetarian paté is like other vegetarian food." Since I walk down the vegetarian aisle, and not the meat aisle, I didn’t see it.

To bring this back to the realm of computing, consider page layout in a word processor. When I used to use Microsoft Word, I would think "page setup is like character and paragraph setup" and so look in the Format menu. Eventually, I would remember that someone at Microsoft had thought "page setup is like printing, so it goes in the File menu."

Of course, humans learn quickly, and after a while I got used to the fact that pages were viewed as different to paragraphs and characters. Then I started using OpenOffice (actually, StarOffice 5 at the time), which believes as I did that page setup is like all of the other format options, and puts it in the Format menu. Unfortunately, by this time, I had got used to finding the option in the (to me) illogical place.

This second problem is very common, and makes it hard to introduce good user interfaces to experienced users. A lot of free desktop environments mimic bad user interface decisions made by Windows because the user is used to them.

This is a mistake in the long term. New users would immediately get the benefit of a good interface, and old ones would after a small amount of practice.

The "is like" relation also fails to take into account how things are used together. A pencil is not like paper, but they are typically used together. Clustering user interface components that are used together is often a better solution, but used in excess can lead to the idea of "task-driven user interfaces," which are generally a bad idea.

Task-driven interfaces are very common in the Windows world, where they are called "wizards." A wizard is a sequence of operations grouped together in a way that allows a particular task to be completed.

In principle, this is a good idea, since it allows certain things to be done very easily. The problem comes from the fact that it is generally impossible to create wizards for every task the user might wish to perform. As soon as users have to step outside the wizard, they suddenly find that all of the experience with the interface they have gained is useless because the non-wizard interface is very different to the wizard. In spite of this, many companies still market wizards as a feature.

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