Sunday, November 16, 2008


The conflict of simplicity vs glitz

When one is writing computer software that one’s company will put out as a product, one has to consider what the user interface will look like — how will the software appear to, and appeal to, the user? Large companies, and even some small ones, hire human/computer interface (HCI) experts to study the interactions and design a graphical user interface (GUI) that they think will work best.

In GUI design, we balance function with form, looking to present a visually appealing result that’s also easy to use. We don’t always get it “right” the first time, and there are usually iterations of the design in subsequent product releases. That’s all as it should be.

But “visually appealing” and “easy to use” mean different things and have different relative importance, depending upon the purpose of the software.

A web browser, for example, will generally have a UI that’s optimized for displaying a web page, and the bulk of the window is devoted to this. Other UI elements serve to facilitate navigation — through bookmarks, browser history, search, forward/backward controls, tabs, and the like — or to give progress or status indications, and we mostly want them to be accessible but not obtrusive. Some users might enjoy a browser “skin” that presented child-toy-sized buttons with animated graphics, but most would rather have them small and simple.

A calendar, on the other hand, has to balance more UI elements, giving the user a choice of different views (by day, by week, by month, as well as perhaps by work-week, two days at a time, and so on), a navigable inset that shows a selected month (that might or might not be the current one), a selection of categories or sub-calendars, access to other users’ shared calendar or free-time information, ... the list can go on. It’s very likely that colour and icons will be important here, to distinguish one type of entry from another (meetings, anniversaries, travel, reminders), and that sort of thing.

At the other extreme, consider the software that sends printed output from other programs (the web browser and the calendar, say) to your printer. You might need to interact with it, to reprint a mangled page or to cancel a multipage printout that you’ve decided you don’t want after all. But for the most part, you want it to be out of your way. You want it to quietly send your stuff to the printer, and you don’t need it annoying you with popups or any sort of fancy GUI.

That brings us to the BlackBerry Desktop Manager, a program that’s used to do synchronize, back up, and load software onto a BlackBerry device from a Windows computer. These days, much of that can be done over the air, but if you want to do it from your own computer, you use the Desktop Manager.

As with the example of printer software, most of the time you want the Desktop Manager to be unobtrusive. You plug the BlackBerry in, and it automatically synchronizes. No flashy UI is necessary, nor wanted. At least, not by the user.

But Research In Motion, the maker of the BlackBerry (and the Desktop Manager software) apparently decided that it does want a flashy UI. Here’s what we had in version 4.2 of the Desktop Manager (shown here at half size; click for full size):

BlackBerry Desktop Manager version 4.2
And here’s version 4.6 (also half size):
BlackBerry Desktop Manager version 4.6

Much bigger, much glitzier... and no longer resizable.


1 comment:

Qlubb-Andy said...

So many contradictions. Form versus function. Attractiveness versus utility. First time user versus power user. Simplicity versus customization and information overload. It's hard to bake your cake and eat it too -- that's why skilled HCI folks are worth their weight in gold.