Monday, July 23, 2007

There Is No Grand Theory of Usability

UI needs may be different after you gain experience ...

"People working with Apple computers are used to a very consistent user experience. For a large part this stems from the fact that the Lisa type of GUI does not have the fight between MDI and SDI. The question simply never arises, because the Lisa type of GUI does not offer the choice to create either of both; it's something different all along. I usually think of it as 'MDI on steroids unified with a window manager'. It virtually includes all benefits of a SDI and and the benefits of an MDI." Read on for how I feel about this age-old discussion.

We have touched on this discussion a couple of times before on OSNews, most notably when we ran a poll on whether or not GNOME should include a patch to enable a global application menubar. The 175 comments to that story provided us with some very valuable insights concerning the matter; most importantly, it illustrated how hard it actually is to make a case for any (G)UI related standpoint, probably because in contrast to many other computing related issues, you cannot benchmark usability. There is no 'UsabilityMark2001' you can run on your Mac and Windows machine, and then compare the results in order to come up with a grand theory of usability which will predict users' behaviour.

The author of the article writes:

"First of all, it saves a lot of screen space. Because the additional menubars are no more than optical bloat. 'But,' you may say, 'screen estate is not so important anymore. Screens get bigger and bigger, with higher resolutions and stuff.' Well, yes. But the human visual sensory equipment has limits. There is a limit of how much information you can get on an area of a certain size. And there is a limit to the area the human eye can usefully overview."

While this makes a lot of sense, the article author fails to realise that this is why menubars ought to be standardised; the order of menubar entries should be the same across all the applications, reducing the amount of new information the eyes and brain must process in order to use the menubar. On top of that, the author also fails to mention that no matter how many windows of, say, Firefox you have open, the menubars in all those instances are exactly the same. In other words, the eyes and brain only have to process that menubar once, since it will know that that menubar will be the same in any instance of Firefox.

In addition, the author's argument does not take training into account. Because I use Firefox so often, I know its structure for the menubar from the top of my head. I do not need to process the menubar at all, simply because it is imprinted in my spatial memory. In other words, the brain has processes in place to minimise the amount of information it needs to actively process."    (Continued via OSNews)    [Usability Resources]

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