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Windows, Dialogs and Palettes
Understanding UI's

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

Windows are such an important element of the Human Interface that Microsoft named their whole Operating System (shell) after them -- forever confusing the terminology and users, all in a blatant attempt to take credit for the concepts developed decades before them. Microsoft got their windows working only 10 years after the rest of the industry had already adopted them. But you have to admire the chutzpah; come late to the game, implement poorly, and take credit for everyone else's work. But this article isn't about bashing Microsoft (as deserving as they may be), this article is the outline for looking into the similarities and differences in window behaviors between platforms, and what is good and bad about each. Sadly, so much is bad (interface wise), about Microsoft's implementation of windows, that it seems to be about Windows-bashing anyway.

Overlapping windows are certainly not that new. I believe the first concepts started in the early 70's. I remember Commodore Pet's, Apple]['s and TRS-80's having an occasional program that would have these funky text window areas. But Apple is the first company to adopt overlapping graphic windows for a mainstream computer, with their Lisa -- and a year or so later with the introduction of the Mac.

There are preferences as to which is better or not, but in UI there is also measurably better and worse. The way this is measured is with both logic (deductive reasoning), and watching user behaviors (user studies). Logically, it is a matter of defining the rules, and seeing how consistent and simple things are, how well something matches a real world metaphor, and how easy the concepts are to explain. For user studies, it is just a matter of watching new users (and power users) to see if they "get it", and can work quickly. So there is art and science.

If you don't think UI is real as an area of study, remember that there are degrees offered in Cognitive Science and Human Factors -- the fancier terms for those that understand User Interface (a lot broader than just software). User Interface issues are not just "opinions", it is an actual science (area of study) based on many things including psychology and the study of human behavior and reasoning. My observations are based on logic (reasoning), on user studies (I've either run, observed or read about), and on educated opinion.

If think of an issue that I may have forgot, then email them to me for consideration. I will listen. If you are mad because you don't like my conclusions, then think about it a while, and watch some users to see if I'm right, before emailing.

How Windows work is to get all the low-down on window terminology, and the basic concepts of windows.

Who does what is a more in depth look at how the system vary in general behaviors, and impressions as to their strengths and weaknesses.

More than just the basics, I will breakdown individual behaviors with windows and explain why some behaviors are better or worse than others.

Closing Windows a detailed breakdown of which machine (Mac or MS-Windows) has the better interface, and exactly why.


There is an interesting way to prove which is better:

  • First, stick new users in a room, and see how long it takes them to get used to each windowing system (after a brief explanation). The Windowing System that takes you the least amount of time to explain, and the user "gets" the quickest, is likely the best.
  • Then, stick power users in a room, and start having them work across applications (with many types of programs at once). Time how long it takes them to set up their work areas, or go window to window, and measure how many mistakes they make.
    • If they keep resorting to other shortcuts (rather than the mouse), it may be a reflection on how bad the windowing system is, since they try to avoid using it as much as possible.

If you do these studies the conclusions come back pretty fast and definitive. Microsoft Windows sucks. Many users are used to their pain, and are comfortable with the amount of abuse they are given, so they don't even notice it. But interface wise it may still be a lousy approach to the problem. MacOS, BeOS, and NeXT all have issues and little flaws -- but they are an order of magnitude better than Windows.

The only opinion that really matters is yours. Look at your system again, with a more informed (educated) position, and watch and learn. Decide if you are happy with the behaviors that you are using. If you are not, be objective enough to admit where.

Created: 04/28/98
Updated: 11/09/02

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