The downward spiral

There are few things that get computer users as riled up as the user interface. Everyone is effected by it and everyone has an opinion about it. What works for one person is likely to induce tourette’s in another. Battle lines have been drawn for years between the Mac world and the PC world and their differing implementations of effectively the same “desktop metaphor”.

Though most of my computer use has been on Windows, I have a few years of solid use of both Mac and Linux. In the last few years I have ended up switching between them at pretty regular intervals: Windows at work, Linux at home and Mac at my Girlfriends. Several months ago, I set up my laptop as a triple boot, (Windows 7, Ubuntu 9.10, and OS X) further accelerating the rate at which I switch between them.

All this jumping from one User Interface to another has slowly created a pretty generic sense of the desktop metaphor in my head along with a notion of trajectory. While there are things I like and things I don’t about each, my overall impression of the trajectory is this: UI is getting worse.

Learning object oriented programming in school we were warned against creating a “God object” that does every possible task in the program. Though that particular anti-pattern is studiously avoided by programmers, it seems increasingly popular for UI designers. So what do the Windows “Start” menu, the KDE “kickoff application launcher”, Windows 7 Start menu and the soon to be released Gnome 3 Activities menu have to do with the God object?

I think they are all part of a UI anti-pattern which I’ll call the “God box”.

To me, its an insane idea that everything that happens on a computer should start by clicking on a single widgit (be it button, menu, launcher or whatever). Many have pointed out how twisted the logic is to have to click a button labelled “Start” to be able to turn off your computer, but this is exactly the kind of stuff you get with a God box. While programs and system settings are proliferating, UI designers are trying to cover up the complexity rather than reduce it.

As Jensen Harris (the guy who designed the Microsoft office ribbon) said of the Word 2002 task pane: “We did what every user interface designer does when they run out of ideas; we invented a new rectangle”. The “Start” menu or the “kickoff application launcher” aren’t new panes but they are essentially a “new rectangle” placed above the mess of submenus in hopes managing the presentation of what lies below.

To me the KDE kickoff application launcher is the most over the top example of this anti-pattern, but it seems that UI nerds everywhere are following it. In Window 7 Microsoft finally ditched the classic start menu and forces everyone to use their version of the God box type Windows menu.

While God boxes allow others stay above the issue, offering ways of filtering the mess below, Gnome waded in and broke the entirety of the operating systems capabilities into enough separate menus that they no longer required filtering or deeply nested sub menus. Currently I have a menu for each of the most common things I am going to do: find a program to run (Applications), look for something (Places) or change something about my computer (System).

With rare exceptions I never need to go below a single sub menu. To me, that’s good UI design. The path to what I want should be as direct as possible. Why should I have to take a trip down the UI rabbithole, hunting for something in a sub sub sub menu when I just want to run one of the applications I have installed? Gnome also kept the best parts of both Windows (like the taskbar) and the Mac (like having a CD/DVD appear on the desktop). In general I think its highly underrated in terms of UI.

Unfortunately, with Gnome 3 around the corner, the UI team at Gnome seem to have succumbed to the same thinking that influenced Microsoft and KDE. It looks like they have created their own God box, known as the “activities menu” to replace all the current menus in Ubuntu 10.10.

Apple seems to avoid most of these issues by saying: “Fuck you, build your own menu” and leaves the users to root through theirs applications folders to set up their equivalent of the applications/programs menu (the dock) themselves. The “apple menu” is really the only other place to look for things that aren’t somewhere in a folder. I suppose simple is a reasonable substitute for friendly, but to me it doesn’t seem like good UI any more that if Microsoft added every program to a quicklaunch bar.

So as far as I can tell the trend seems to be towards more clicking and more sub sub sub menus. Add to that the recent decision by Canonical to purposelessly move the min, max and close buttons to the right (what conceivable benefit could there be that would make the aggravation worth it?), and news about things like the “task pooper”, the path that current UI design is going down is inducing more eye rolling than anticipation in me. I hope I’m wrong about the Gnome activity menu, but I’m not holding my breath.


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