Maemo UI improvements blog.

January 24, 2008

More User Interface Generalisations – the Consistency Myth?

Filed under: Light UI modifications — Tags: , , , , , , — kareljansens @ 22:22

As Antoine R J Wright already noted , there is more to a good pocket computer’s user interface than just getting the right screen layout for your user’s home screen. “Consistency” is the magic word, but what does that exactly mean and how important is it really?

Let’s go back to the Psion. The Series 3 has a keyboard-oriented interface, based on drop-down menus, lots of keyboard shortcuts and a zoomable screen. Psion put down guidelines and many developers did indeed follow them. Nevertheless, there are Psion programs that do not follow those guidelines and became rather successful nevertheless (most of JBSoft‘s programs e.g. took those guidelines rather loosely). I think that the explanation for this is that the Psion’s interface, while very clever, wasn’t very intrusive or necessary for efficient use of the computer. Despite their inventiveness, Psion Series 3s were basically shrunk down pcs with keyboards. The user didn’t need to get accustomed to a radically new way to use the Psion, just to a more clever way to use the keyboard.

The Newton was different. For one thing, it’s a true tablet pc so any way to use a keyboard on it would be tricky and uncomfortable. Most Newton users would not be accustomed to using a tablet, so Apple rightly decided that the user interface was very important to the whole “Newton feel”. Then again, that consistency (as far as the user experiences go — I’m not going to delve into the developer’s point of view) is mostly limited to the HWR, the gestures interface (scrubbing to delete stuff, dragging to/from the margins to copy/paste), the placement of menu options (the “send” icon top right, in-program menu options on the baseline) and the look and feel of sub-windows.

The content of Newton programs could vary wildly and mostly escaped interface control. Example: Newtons came with “Newton Works”, a combination of word processor, spreadsheet and various installable modules, that out-of-the-box would not recognize handwriting; you needed a community-developed addon for that! (the reason for this was that Works was developed for the eMate, a keyboard variant of the Newton MessagePad). I still have on my MessagePad an interesting CAD-like program for surveying and drawing house plans, PocketHousMap, that defied several (but not all!) of the Newton’s guidelines. Cigraph stopped supporting it when de Newton was discontinued, but the manual can be found here.

What’s my personal take on this? There is one significant difference between the two environments I mentioned above and Maemo/Hildon: Both SIBO (Psion’s Series 3 OS) and NewtonOS are — very — closed source, and the Itablet’s OS isn’t. The question is whether it is doable (and ethical) to impose strict guidelines to developers on an Open Source environment. Personally, I think it shouldn’t be done, not as mandatory guidelines anyway. On the other hand, the design of Hildon isn’t such that it encourages developers to freely adapt to it; there are too many inconsistencies, flaws and even contradictions in it to make Hildon a “good” user interface. The only reason people “hildonise” their applications, is because there is no real alternative to the Hildon UI — yet.

This is where Penguinbait’s KDE port comes into play again. KDE is a very mature windowing environment, which has been fully GPLed recently. It is also very adaptable (see my earlier remark about putting menus on the bottom) and people seem to really like developing for it. If I were to improve the Itablet’s UI, I’d put my money on tweaking the KDE port, especially now that Cellwriter is claimed to be working in KDE, and give Hildon a run for its money.

We don’t need to turn the Itablet into a Newton copy (although it might be possible with OpenEinstein, one day), but we do need to find better ways to make it interact with us, especially if we want the Itablet to become more than a geek’s network sniffing tool. It’s a fine line between giving developers a set of guidelines they want to follow, and UI fascism, but I believe that less rules is always better. We just have to find the good less rules.

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