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Suck On Skins And UI 276

kisrael writes: "Today's talks about how the freedoms designers now have in UI appearance-- starting with the the Web, moving to Skins for WinAmp, ending with the latest versions of QuickTime and the preview release of Netscape 6-- are ignoring visual and interface standards that users have come to rely on." A lot to think about and discuss here: personally I'm a big fan of skins and themes, but it only takes seconds to find countless awful themes. There are exceptions, but they're rare.
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Suck On Skins And UI

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  • by Anonymous Coward
    Oh and so what if Netscapes new gui isn't standard? What if the one they came up with is 10x better (once you're use to it) Should they avoid using it just because it will confuse NS4 and IE users at first?

    Maybe you want to figure out a new gui for each and every program you might want to use but I, and I think with me almost every other computer user, has better things to do then that.
    Sure, those new gui concepts add some nice features, but in general a consistent interface is likely to be much better for the user then 20 programs that all have a superior but completely different interface.
    Sure, sometimes its fun to figure out how things work... but for many people a computer is a tool, not some adventure, they need to use it with as little overhead as possible. Ensuring that all programs work in a simular way ensures that people spend their learning time as efficient as possible because they will not learn to work with just one, but with each and every program.

    And as with other tools... they perfected hammers and axes and the like till almost everyone could use tem instead of trying to change everyone and leave us with stone hammers and axes.... Guis will change as well, but the current way in which they seem to be changing is leading to a lot of chaos, and thats a step in the wrong direction.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    I'm personally fed up with all the hype surrounding "skins" and other little widgets. They're not necessary, and they really take away from the programmer's original vision. Why the hell should the USER decide what his program looks like? That just doesn't make any sense; they're not qualified to do that sort of thing. Does the average user have any idea about design and art? Of course not. And potential users for the program are going to see someone's display, and choose NOT to use that program because it looks ugly. Then I don't get paid, and I can't buy toast. My toaster gets lonely without bread, and eventually I pay the price. Have you EVER seen what happens if you don't appease a toaster? It's not a pretty sight. I still have the scars.

    So what can we do about this? Well, for the past two months I've been protesting the use of skins. I have been gradually removing my own skin. It's almost gone now, with the exception of my left leg, which I haven't had time to flay yet. My bloody and raw-muscled face attracts attention, and immediately people understand the importance of leaving graphical interfaces to the people qualified to design them. Occasionally I pass out because of blood loss. Sometimes I wake up in places I don't remember going to in the first place. Like last thursday for example. I woke up in a gutter in Toledo. I don't even live in Ohio. I don't remember going to Ohio. I don't remember WANTING to go to Ohio. Something was quite definitely wrong, but I didn't let it get to me too much. Instead, I let the swarm of flies bother me. They haven't really left me alone since this project began. And THAT is an irritation, let me tell you.

    So remember, the next time you see a skinless bloody freak walking down the street, or rather hobbling due to the swelling and scabbing which makes movement very difficult, DESIGN IS LAW!!!!
  • On the one hand they complain about the incredible flexibility that XUL gives a GUI designer.

    Then they complain that it won't make the usability of the product any better, only worse.

    Then they preach on and on about how GUI design is a fine art.

    Well, to that I have to say:

    1. GUI designers need good tools. With XUL, GUI designers actually *have* good tools.

    2. If the program is unusable, people won't use it, and the program won't survive. It's that simple. If it is very user friendly ('usable'), then it'll stick around, and the GUI will have worked properly.

    What they should have written this article about was the total flexibility that Mozilla gives in terms of user interface design, and what effect that will have on Explorer ...
  • If you are speaking as a developer, I can see the desire to implement your own control where the one Microsoft provides sucks. This is the wrong thing to do, as when MS *does* fix it, or adds new features, or adds native skinning, you will be left out. The place to fix such problems is in the OS, not in the application. Otherwise you are asking for trouble. In any case, if you fix a problem in some control in your app only, that introduces an inconsistency for your app only, which is not good.
    I quite agree, with the caveat that this doesn't seem to happen all that much. Ever run through MS Office and see how many of their own guidelines they ignore? Half of the problems with Windows are things that one part of Microsoft knows about and another ignores (Fun with Corporate Politics!); needless to say, third party developers haven't exactly been better disciplined...
  • I switched from the default Netscape 6 skin to something smaller (the Sullivan skin). This produced what feels like at least 200% speedup in the user interface; where it felt sluggish before (presumably due to having only a 350Mhz PII and 256MB) it was perhaps a couple percent behind the native GUI.

    (On a related note, I'd be more in favor of using the native controls if the ones on Windows didn't suck so much. Microsoft should see if Apple's usability lab people need work now that Apple doesn't want them.)

  • Not only do people have no choice with WinAmp, but Microsoft is trying to make a monkey out of me for having defended their software on occation in this forum. The new Windows Media Player has "skins" for its compact views, and the default "full" window has a "chrome" look you can't get rid of (or at least I have not been able to figure out how). A fine example of the freedom to innovate.

    Why are media players so special as to require a gaudy, useless, and gratuitous "skin?" This is a "tradition" carried forward from the hideous "stereo component" UIs that come with the dreck that is bundled with sound cards. Does anyone have the spine to stand up and say "Who ordered this crap?" Are the people spec'ing these things at Apple and Microsoft such wimps they cannot question an idiotic decision made by designers much less capable than themselves? Faugh! I can't wait for the gratuitous "spine' on my e-books, and maybe cutesy "book marks," too. It's the "desktop metaphor" you dopes, not the "desktop regious fundamentalist literal interpretation."

    Lazy, lazy, lazy. In fifteen years we cannot think of a better way to set margins than a visual analogue of a typewriter margin ruler? It makes you think PageMaker would squirt hot lead if it could. Or make you rub paste on your screen. And how about those spreadsheets that have not advanced significantly since Lotus made a half-hearted attempt at fundamental change (I forgot what it was called, but it made a lot more sense than equations hidden behind spreadsheet cells).

    Clippy must die! And thank you for the letting me vent.

  • MDI has become deprecated since Windows 95. Supposedly, the UI should now be document-centric - hence the introduction of Explorer and the Start>Documents sub-menu.
  • Well, the idea that all applications have to look the same is the invention of Apple in the early Mac years (and least until Aqua they seemed to have a unwritten rule which said they all had to look ugly, too). I've always thought this is akin to saying that all movies have to star Tom Hanks so that people know who the hero is. I *like* diversity in applications and movies.
  • Ummm, so wouldn't using the themable widgets AND creating a 'crappy Microsoft UI theme' let you have it both ways without code-evil?

    Nope. maybe you should go back and read the article, right where it said:

    "Oh, sure, somebody will labor mightily to produce a skin that looks just like each native OS, and he or she might even come close to pulling it off. But close doesn't mean much in a world where subtlety and nuance actually matter. Common, native controls exist for a reason, and that reason is not to serve as a model for crude simulations."

    Swing, the new UI package that ships with Java <blink>1.</blink>2 (and is also avaialable for 1.1), uses "lightweight" components for almost everything. It comes with a Windows 95-esque "look and feel", but it isn't the real thing. It doesn't feel like the real thing, and it doesn't quite look like the real thing. And if you mess around with your desktop settings, or upgrade to a version of Windows where the components look different, the emulation fails miserably.

    That said, I would have nothing against a desktop that was "themeable". The main requirement is that the "themes" should affect everything. Why should my MP3 player look any different from my chat client? Sure, if I want different apps to use different themes, that could be an option. But my point is, the theming/skin system should not be in individual applications. It should be in the UI system itself, so the user can easily have a consistent look and feel to their environment.

    GNOME and KDE are making some progress towards that goal. Unfortunatley, GNOME at least (I haven't tried KDE yet) still makes a distinction between "toolkit" themes and "window manager" themes. This is insanely dumb.

    Of course, X's problem is that every frigging application uses a different toolkit, so all the widgets look different. And my window borders are rendered by yet another program. My desktop ends up looking like a garage sale, unless I'm very selective about which programs I run. Oh joy!

    The UI of your typical X application is rendered by two things: the toolkit that the app uses, and the window manager. The toolkit applies its own look-and-feel, and the wm applies another to the border.

    If users chose toolkits, they'd probably pick the one that was easiest to use, or most aethetically pleasing. Users don't choose the toolkits though, developers do. So the toolkit is often chosen because it's easy to program with (eg: KDE), available in the Developer's programming language (eg: Tk), fits with the developer's politics (eg: GTK+), or is some sort of "corporate standard" where the developer works (eg: Motif). None of these reasons matter to the user, yet the user is the one that's ultimately affected. Even if the Develper does try to select a toolkit based on usability (one or two of us actually care about things like that...), the developer's sense of aethetics and usability might not be the same as all of the application's eventual users.

    So how do we fix that? In an ideal world, applications would merely provide functionality, with a UI that was specified in terms of what they want to say to the user, and what they need to know from the user. A user abstraction layer (UAL), so to speak. The system would have a UI Manager (UIM) that would act something like a super-window manager. It would handle all of the things that today's window managers handle, but it would also handle the look and feel of window contents as well. The interface between the UAL and the UIM would be standardized, so that users could install a different UIM if they wanted to, and all of their existing apps would benefit from it. The UAL would also be standardized, so that numerous toolkits could exist for it. Developers could then choose any of these toolkits, based on what matters to them. Users could choose whatever UIM they wanted, and configure it however they please, knowing that their customizations will affect all of their applications.

    So is that hard to implement? Yes. Is it impossible? I don't think so. It pretty much requires that toolkits have a fairly abstract view of the UI though. Many toolkits probably aren't abstract enough. It would also be important to be very flexible and extendible. If someone needs a new type of "component", it should be possible to add that to the system, without breaking old UIM's.
  • And exactly how sensible is it that I have to relearn a UI for every OS I use? Unless we standardize on a single OS (and who wants to do that?), this guarantees the balkanization of UI's for all time.

    No one has really capitalized on the power of skins yet -- and they won't, until they become even more ubiquitous. But even so, suck misses the point -- having the UI for an application change across OSes is a bug, not a feature.

    Of course, so is having the UI change across applications (unless the user has a good reason for changing it). In addition to giving the user unlimited choice, skins offer us a way to abstract the UI away from everything, including the OS. And the eventual result should be, after a democratic shakedown, a unifying UI standard across all platforms. Eventually, the user could probably not even have to be aware of which OS they're using -- as long as the UI is standard across apps and OSes, it doesn't matter.

    The OSes had their chance to buy into this, and they didn't. (Heck, Mac could possibly have stopped this cold if they had freed their UI the way IBM freed the PC architecture. Maybe they would have gone bankrupt, so I don't really fault their decision -- but UI balkanization would probably have been a moot point.)

    In fact, it seems to be accepted dogma that you have to totally rearrange your UI every upgrade, or users won't think anything's new. Skins give us the opportunity to stop this silliness. Think Aqua sux? If you had the power that skins and XUL promise, you could reconvert to OS 8 with impunity.

    It's not got any kind of centralizing authority, and that probably needs to change. But maybe not yet -- the most advanced stuff out there is XUL, and it's not ubiquitous enough. It might still be time for experimentation on the best way to implement skins, until a broad consensus arises.

    Then it will be time to come to a consensus on the most usable interface, independent of the ideal OS for a given application. And that will be that, except for occasional innovations (and perhaps the Next Big Thing(tm), when we finally name a successor to WIMP), and optimizations for the way certain people work. (I expect graphic designers could benefit from a slightly different UI than coders, for instance.)

    At least, that's the best-case scenario to suck's worst-case. The truth will probably fall somewhere in the middle, but skins offer real potential to improve usability as much as they do to trash it.


  • If you need low-color XMMS, go to the skins page and grab XawXMMS. It only uses two colors (black and white), blends in with other Xaw apps, and is quite readable on 2-bit and 8-bit displays. There's also a Gtk+ skin floating around somewhere that makes XMMS look like a standard Gtk app, it would probably do OK on an 8-bit display too. Of course, you don't have to use XMMS, there are a lot of more "basic" MP3 players out there that don't do the eye-candy skinning and visualization that XMMS does. The music sounds just as good through mpg123, and it doesn't waste CPU cycles or colormap space on effects you don't want.
  • What I don't understand is why the people complaining about evil themes don't create a theme which *looks just like standard widgets* and then get people shipping themable applications to use that as their default ...
    The reason is that a look-alike theme isn't enough, because it will only be SUPERFICIALLY similar. Devil's in the details, and when I can't use all my favorite Mac key combinations to edit text in Mozilla or when the menus don't act just right, it's incredibly annoying, because I expect the interface to be consistent. There's a REASON why there are system-wide widgets, and the OS developer doesn't just say, "Here's what your widgets should roughly look like.. just make something that sorta works like it."
  • One of the reasons so many of us chose Linux was the freedom to manipulate our UI environment the way we wanted to.

    I do not really see the fuss about choice versus cutomization. Why? Well, the choices given do not confuse the newbie because they can stick with the default views if they care to. How many people do you know that still have the plain jane grey winamp skin? I know a lot of folks that are stuck in this view.

    The idea that we have gone too far with allowing the customization of UI in the operating system or various applications is one to ponder but for only half a second. As long as the functionality remains the same then changing the look of different buttons and such is not a great big deal.

    The real annoyance in my opinion is how radically different the actual functionality of buttons and options are under many GPLed apps and window managers. That is a major annoyance for the casual or home user. Unless, I want to go completely KDE or GNOME in my choice of applications then I have to go through the time of re-teaching the shortcuts and such to my wife so she gets the full functionality out of the applications.

    She could just hunt and peck her way through the app but believe it or not there are home users out there that work on computers all day long that prefer keystroke shortcuts and want to be truly proficient in the use of their applications.

    Skins are not an issue. The real issue is that under Linux at least there are so many divergent development tools that no one application looks, feels or acts the same. Many times the apps do not even bother to work together (can anyone say cut and paste into oblivion?)

    The debate over development tools becomes even more complex. KDE in my opinion is too windoze like. Other people swear by it and say that development is easier than Gnome. Other people love the GTK tools and I personally like the look and feel of the GNOME apps a lot. Then there are developers using a hodge podge of various tools from all over the GPL landscape each with their own strengths. I love the OpenStep, GNUstep NeXt feel but the apps just are not as robust as some of the GNOME alternatives in terms of their feature set.

    With no all powerful company calling the shots on look and feel the desktop with be a tough frontier for the Open Source community to take. However, none of us want one company calling the shots so the whole thing becomes the complex mess of GTK, KDE apps living in conflict with wx, xform and a half dozen other development widget set and tools to make apps.

  • Sorry, but this article sounds like a bunch of crap. First it starts ranting about being "
    buried in toolbars, insulted by assistants"--now, I don't claim to be an expert in this area, but after having to use a great deal of MS products where I last worked, you can get rid of those toolbars and assistants. So what is he bitching about here? I agree the assistant is annoying, and almost nobody likes it, but you take away those toolbars users are "buried" in, and they start crying that they don't know where to click.

    Then he starts bitching about X widget/wm themes. To me, this is totaly different. I don't need slack-jawed, knuckle dragging, mouth breathing, protohuman lusers insisting that I can't change the way I interact with my computer. Yes I use X; yes I use E, and I do have it themed. And there is almost no left-clicking, center-clicking, or right-clicking involved. I've set up most everything to work with the keyboard, and it is 10 times faster. So woe to the man who wants to get work done. Sounds like this guy thinks that if someone themes X, that theme then infests everyone else: "But who are we to judge if someone's got a thing for nubile teens? Unless, of course, the desire to serve that fetish starts to interfere with our ability to use the damned software." And he links to a winamp skin, bitching like someone is forcing him to use it.

    Then he starts complaining about Mozilla. "But on another level, Mozilla is an unmitigated usability disaster. Running on Windows, Nagivator 6 looks nothing like Windows. Running on MacOS, Nagivator 6 looks nothing like MacOS." Now, while I agree on some level here that it would be more favorable for Mozilla to pay attention to some systemwide theme, one has to remember that it is supposed to run on many platforms--putting in code to make it look like every OS it runs on would be impossible. And last I checked, the fact that it doesn't look like the rest of my X apps didn't make it hard to use. It may be ugly right now, but it isn't hard. Personaly, I'm just glad I won't have to stare at Netscape 4.x's ugly face for much longer. :)

    Sounds like whoever wrote this article just downloaded some shiny new app for his doze box and couldn't find his local geek to help him figure out where to click.
  • Haha! I love it! A backfired troll! You even followed the troll how-to by proclaiming yourself an "IT consultant", mispelling Linus Torvalds and praising Microsoft. You should have followed its advice and gone off the deep end in your last paragraph instead of saying something fairly true. B+ overall, but try harder next time. The moderation gave you bonus points, but you really need to generate some replies.

  • I find this article a bit self-contradictory.

    Because you haven't quite grasped the point of the article.

    The author complains about skinnable apps because it allows people to make skins which are usually ugly and it complains also that Apple did a bad job for its Quicktime4 player.

    See the contradiction?


    The author's point is that we're seeing an increasing trend towards bad UI design in general. Skinnable apps are bad not because someone can write bad skins for them, but because the coders don't seem to put any real importance on the UI. A user shouldn't have to tweak skins so that Netscape 6 is usable on their system.

    I personally think the best quote in the Suck article is:

    "It's more than a little ironic that the most enthusiastic proponents of the magical power of standards -- the open-source kids -- would so strenuously ignore standards when it comes to the interface."

    My fondest wish for Linux GUI apps (and this isn't a "Linux needs [X] to win the desktops" or "Linux will never be adopted commercially if they don't do [X]" -- though I think it would help a lot):

    Consistent keystrokes for menu commands. This was Apple's bread-and-butter on the Macintosh. Command Q always closed an application. Command-Z was "undo", command-X was "cut", command-C was "copy", and command-V was "paste". Command-S was "save", command-W was "close", and command-P was "print". Were these intuitive? No, but they became intuitive through consistency. I remember when Mac trade magazines would dock applications for not adhering to the standard Mac guidelines; I hope they still do.

    Should I have to remember if an app uses...

    • Ctrl-X
    • Ctrl-Q
    • Alt-X
    • Alt-Q
    • Alt-F4
    • Ctrl-X, Ctrl-C (I know Emacs isn't a GUI app, but c'mon! two keystrokes?) close an app?

    True, I think also that many skins sucks. So what? The author who created it must have liked it otherwise he/she wouldn't have released it.

    Hmm. Wasn't it Lazarus Long who said "Writers who read their work in public may have other nasty habits"?

    Jay (=

  • ``She began to become obsessed with customizing Winamp -- she insisted that her Winamp skin match her desktop theme (which she has mountians of.) She isn't a hacker; she just wants her stuff to look good.''

    So I'll bet that skins have eaten all her productive time. Does she get any real work done now? Or is all her spare time spent making the skins look `just right' with her mountains of themes? This is another example of how so-called innovations like themes (on both Windows as well as X) tend to be the most wasteful examples of fritterware that I can think of. Ten years ago we used to get laughed at when we were writing code on out VT-series terminals when the ``advanced'' applications folk were using PCs. In the end, though, we had the last laugh and working applications while they had pretty desktops with little running code.

    Remember the old Mac commercial with the two guys in the office spending a week or so customizing their office PC ``so we can be more productive''? The secretary's response along the lines of ``If we're any more productive we'll be out of business'' was right on the money.

  • I find this article a bit self-contradictory.

    The author complains about skinnable apps because it allows people to make skins which are usually ugly and it complains also that Apple did a bad job for its Quicktime4 player.

    See the contradiction?
    If the Apple's app was skinnable, it would have enabled the users to customise it at will, so they wouldn't have complained as much.

    True, I think also that many skins sucks. So what?
    The author who created it must have liked it otherwise he/she wouldn't have released it.

    With some kind of ratings of skins on websites, it allows people to find easily popular skins, and one could imagine websites which would "link" skins ie "you liked skins X for this app, have a look at skin Y for that app, you may like it..".

    In the end what matters is that the default look and feel of this apps is good and that distro makers include for each apps a handfull of really good skins...

    What I would like also would be to choose a skins as a base and to be able to tweak it at will with a simple point-and-click utility.
    for me, a graphical utility makes more sense for tweaking the appereance than a command-line, but both are NOT mutually exclusive.
  • I'm all for risk and return, but mere skins do not provide much in the way of return, and they certainly do confuse many users. MacOSX and Netscape 6 are improved in far more than just in "skins". I overall like what i've seen from Netscape6 thus far, but I do question the wisdom of trying to make things too pretty at the cost of ease of use (even though NS6's problems are more subdued, this is not true with most open source software).

  • Back before ActiveX and VB Script we used plain jane HTML code and could usually come up with some nice looking stuff. The good thing was that all hyperlinks looked the same so when you saw underlined text you could probably surmise that it was a hyperlink. Now on some sites you're lucky if you can even read the text, let alone find hyperlinks. Back then the web was instesting enough for people to keep using it, so I spose it did work afterall.
  • My favourite quote from the the article,
    The year 2000 is going to be 1983 all over again, with user interfaces a confusing mish-mash of whatever strikes a coder's fancy the day before the product ships.
    This really does sum it up, UI seems to right a sine wave. It goes from really crappy interface to a fairly decent and standard one back to a crappy one. At first the developers want it to just work without being pretty, then they want it to work and be pretty, after the pretty stage they go to gaudy because they want to test some sort of artistic mettle and be original. Theres also different kids of users to screw things up, people just learning a program want a simple interface thats easy to use (basic), more advanced users want all the buttons and widgets they can, while real power users want the starkest yet functional UI because they are on the clock. I like my UI stark yet functional and upfront.
    On topic but a tangent, what would happen if someone ported GTK (or Qt) to Windows? I mean if it were possible to port it would probably be a boon to everyone. If you make a program thats ported to several OSes you could have the same UI for each of them meaning professional environments could more easily make a transition from one Unix to another or from Windows to Unix or however you want to do it. Besides that the GUI library would be free of charge which means lower development costs on said piece of software. Oh well, I need to do a make.
  • by wangi ( 16741 )
    XMMS would be much better without skins. Even an option of not loading a skin would be nice. If you've tried to load XMMS on 8bit display you'll understand...
  • I'm always amazed at the crap that gets produced for kaleidoscope [] for the Mac. How many people *really* want a bright pink window border? :)
    Actually, the thing that amazes me is the amount of time that people take to make their MP3 player skins: just how much time do you spend *looking* at your MP3 player? IMO, the best GUI is the "invisible one": once you learn the few basics, you should never spend any time looking at the GUI, just using it. So, I find the vast majority of skins and themes quite stupid: they all force the user to look to much at the pretty graphics and distract from simply using the damn computer. Though I did make myself a desktop picture [], simply because patterns weren't doing it for me anymore.

  • The Linux desktop, Gnome, has some odd features...

    GNOME is not the Linux Desktop(tm)! This can be easily refuted by the presence of other equally popular desktops, and the fact that GNOME runs under non-Linux systems as well.

    What is needed is a simple, easy to learn and intuitive UI

    Yeah, GNOME is working on it. They're getting closer. (they may already be there, I haven't used GNOME in a while...) But in the meantime, look at KDE/Qt. All the applications have the same UI, hotkeys, menu structure, etc. (unless the developer chooses otherwise). Even a vanilla Qt application looks and feels like a KDE application.
  • Subtle ? Are you serious ? This is about as subtle as being hit on the head with a 4x2 plank of wood.
    Perhaps, but the majority or trolls on Slashdot are brandishing entire trees, you're subtle by comparison....
  • Until the article writer actually uses the skins option (which isn't available in PR1),

    Skins support is available in PR1, but is a bit flaky. I got it to work with the Sullivan skin from Chromezone [] with the usual command line :

    netscp6.exe -chrome chrome://sullivan/content/

    Doesn't work perfectly (menu options are messed), but at least it gives a more pleasant view than the ridiculously ugly default Mozilla skin (doesn't Netscape have a single decent graphic designer in the entire company?)

    Regarding the suck article, I agree to some extent about not having to use skins. In this case though, I think that performance has suffered as a result of implementing that support; XUL has quite a large runtime overhead. Afaik, NS6PR1 doesn't have a lot of debugging code in it, so we won't see any tremendous speed increases on final release. I'd trade the skins support for a small, fast, stable browser any day.

    Personally, my team and I are currently working on a cross-platform XML representation that uses NATIVE widget sets with platform-specific code. My ideal crossplatform app is one which renders in the native window manager (win32, gtk, qt, whatever), and not a cross-ported effort. Just looking at a GTK-win32 app gives me the shivers; it just looks so out of place.

  • I'm sure they've already received enough user feedback to realize that most users are like yourself -- they'd rather sacrifice some nice features to have a faster, more stable browser.

    Yeah ... at the moment, the default browser is pretty bloated ... I dont _want_ a mail client, a news reader, Instant Messenger, blah blah in my browser.

    Of course, the ultimately cool thing about Mozilla is the component model which means that we can write our own lightweight browser just using Gecko and ignoring all the other crap; I wonder if platform specific ones will spring up after release; would be cool.
  • For me, it depends on the time of day. In the daytime I prefer light backgrounds, but dark backgrounds are too dark. In the night, I prefer just the reverse. So I've settled on light backgrounds.

    Perhaps people who prefer dark backgrounds use their computer a lot at night ;) ?
  • I absolutely hate MDI, for the same reasons you seem to like it. I switch between apps in windows using the alt-tab feature, and I really like the way it sorts items by last use. I generally don't even have to look at the icons, much less read the titles, because I unconsiously remember the last few apps I used in the order I used them. Really handy skill when you've got half a dozen xterm/gvim windows open from a seperate unix box.

    MDI kills that, because every application has its own way of selecting documents. And some of them don't even have keyboard accelerators. I absolutely despise Word for this. What makes it worse is that you can't easily tile documents side-by-size, only top-bottom, and because of the MDI nature, you can't layer a Word document over/under another window without the whole app layering over/under it.

    Virtual desktops are the more elegant solution to the problems you describe. It gives you more screen real estate, and it doesn't require one to learn every MDI app's window management techniques. In MDI apps I tend to maximize the top-level window anyway, so how is that worse than switching screens?
  • I wish I could do more customization with my Win98 (especially get rid of My Documents...

    But you can! See this piece at Monkeyland []

  • Its always sad to see people misinterpreting whole ideas this way. Themes, and web design, have originally not at all been about developer control. It has been about taking control over design and layout out of the hands of the developer and putting it in the hands of the _USER_. The theme developers usually understand this, altho the web developers seem to have some difficulty grasping the idea of the users deciding what their page looks like.

    The USER is the person doing the interaction with applications and webpages. That is who should ultimately control how things are presented and how the interface works.

    Real operating systems have user accounts which can be set up any way the user wants. Ideally, you should be able to just pull your setup with you and have the same UI in another place, whichever OS happens to be running. YOUR UI.
  • an elitist. Just look at this article's disparagement of the aesthetic taste of the average user.

    After over ten years of hearing pretty much the same homilies, I have to ask the question: Where are the success stories? Now that Apple has abandoned its own HCI guidelines, where are the systems that can be held up as whole examples of UI excellence (and I don't mean a screenshot of an individual dialog box)?

    I think a lot of the things the UI purists tell us are worth listening to -- how can you be against consistency? How could making an interface manifest be a bad thing? When is clutter beneficial to the user?

    But I've pretty much had it with the attitude of most self appointed UI gurus, who don't seem offer the average person anything other than a sneer and an extended palm. They have no right to be contemptuous of the Mozilla intiative, which is working hard to accomplish something positive.

    The tools now exist to put their money where their mouths are. Why don't they put together a UI snob's Linux or BSD distro?
  • >MDI is, IMHO, not a suitable interface for anything at all.

    That's not a very humble opinion.

    IMNSHO, MDI is very useful to avoid screen clutter. As a programmer, I often need to switch between viewing/editing a dozen or more source files at once, all as part of the same basic task. If I had each of these documents in separate windows, they'd be overlapping every which way and I'd go nuts trying to find the file I want. Virtual desktops don't offer a solution either, because these files are all related to the same task and I'm not going to split the views for one task arbitrarily across two screens. A simple tabbed-MDI interface provides the only reasonable way for me to manage this scenario. It's the same interface that generations of emacs programmers have used happily and productively, even if they never called it MDI.

    Personally, I'd rather live in an all-MDI world than an all-SDI one, but I can accept that both have their place. Perhaps you can explain to me why it's A Good Thing to have a bunch of separate top-level windows instead of hierarchical windows, because in general I find the former a pain in the ass. Virtual desktops give some but not all of the benefits I derive from MDI, and generally strike me as a mere kludge to make SDI a little less awful, when a solution to SDI's problems already existed.
  • >I don't, in this case, see how a tabbed MDI interface is much better than a tabbed SDI interface. In fact I've seen many Windows users work exactly like this; all windows maximised, and switching between them using tabbing or the taskbar.

    When I referred to a tabbed MDI interface, I meant something much like the taskbar provided by the application (EditPlus) rather than using the Tab key. I want to be careful of comparing anything to bad SDI here, but the main reason I can't really get the same effect with virtual desktops and the original taskbar is that the original taskbar has some pathologically stupid behavior when it comes to things like clicking on the icon for a window that's already open but not frontmost.

    >What MDI - in full, subwindow mode - does is to restrict the control I have over placement of windows, by confining all windows owned by one application to a rectangle, which itself obscures everything under it.

    Well, yes, that's kind of what MDI is all about. I don't find MDI very useful except with subwindows maximized, and I can't recall seeing anyone else use it much that way either. Seems to me that it reproduces the original screen-clutter problem in a much smaller space, which only makes things worse. Again, this is a matter more of implementation than approach.

    >With MDI, you're limited to grouping by owner application. I do not often find such grouping terribly useful.

    Yes, this is a problem/limitation, which brings us back to the "one window, one application" fallacy. In a more component-based approach, such as a web browser or DevStudio, it's much less of an issue because components (rather than applications) which perform multiple tasks are allowed to coexist harmoniously within one frame and don't have to each open their own top-level windows to interact with the user.
  • First off, I've already explained how MDI solves the particular problem I face better than virtual desktops do. It's a common problem. I'd think it would be hard to argue that virtual desktops are better than MDI without addressing that scenario, but I guess that here on slashdot anything is possible.

    >MDI kills that, because every application has its own way of selecting documents.
    >What makes it worse is that you can't easily tile documents side-by-size, only top-bottom, and because of the MDI nature

    This sounds like a complaint about _poorly implemented_ or inconsistent MDI, not with MDI in general. I could create an SDI application that pops up 18 different windows to perform one task, and it would be every bit as annoying as MDI could ever be, but that doesn't invalidate SDI in general. Comparing well-done SDI to poorly-done MDI doesn't prove much of anything. The Office apps are notorious for flouting MS's own interface guidelines; despite their prevalence, they're not good examples when discussing the _inherent_ advantages or disadvantages of MDI.

    This is why user-interface guidelines are a good thing. Such guidelines often don't so much say "do _this_" as they say "_if_ you do this, do it _this_ way" so that the user is presented with consistent and predictable behavior.

    >Virtual desktops are the more elegant solution to the problems you describe.

    I'd say about equally elegant, and then only when VD works (which it often doesn't on Windows, where any number of programs seem to circumvent the hooks that VD code relies on). More in a moment.

    >It gives you more screen real estate

    No, it does not. My screen is still exactly the same size, capable of displaying exactly the same amount of information simultaneously.

    >In MDI apps I tend to maximize the top-level window anyway, so how is that worse than switching screens?

    That's sort of my point: that virtual desktops and MDI are mostly interchangeable. If people - including Microsoft, adhered to UI standards in implementing MDI, much of the reason for having virtual desktops would go away, especially since you can have as many MDI windows as you want but very rarely is the number of virtual desktops dynamically changeable. The only thing VD can do that MDI can't is allow windows from multiple separate programs to be grouped in a workspace, and even that wouldn't be much of an issue if plugin/component interfaces were more commonly used. We could have some fun discussing the "one window, one application" fallacy that underlies much of the MDI vs. SDI debate, if we want.

    An interesting question might be: how much would you like SDI if you didn't have a virtual-desktop crutch to lean on? Personally, a system without either MDI or virtual desktops (which I have also used for many years, BTW) is significantly less usable than a system with either one. We're really arguing MDI vs. virtual desktops, which is a fun exercise, but not really the same as comparing MDI vs. SDI.
  • >For one thing, there's an index to all toplevel windows, the taskbar

    ...which gets filled up rather quickly if the user has even the slightest ability to multitask. At that point the icons in the taskbar become indistinguishable from one another (which one of these telnet windows is on the test machine I need?) and the only way to resolve it is to use a multi-row taskbar - sucking up more precious screen space.

    >M$'s idiocy in tying focus to stacking order

    Interesting. The other pro-SDI advocate seemed to like this behavior.
  • Even though skins are in a way quite lame - having pictures of cheese on you gimp does not look good - they are a byproduct of good code. The fact that GTK can load a theme engine, which shapes & color all widgets is quite a feat. The fact that we have a gui toolkit which doesn't break applications when themeing them just shows how good code there really is underneath. True, we should put more effort into GUI design, but that is no reason to squash themes.
    I personally don't like themes with pixmaps etc. they either look dumb or you get bored quite fast. But hey, the truth is that some people like windoze scrollbars, some people like motif scrollbars, some like gtk scrollbars. The fact we can change fonts, colors and widgets cat not bad a bad thing.
  • > Remember the old Mac commercial with the two guys in the office spending a week or
    > so customizing their office PC ``so we can be more productive''? The secretary's response
    > along the lines of ``If we're any more productive we'll be out of business''
    > was right on the money.

    I don't remember this commercial, but if it was indeed a Mac commercial, I'm afraid I have to laugh. Go check out the Jargon File definition of "macdink" -- the Mac used to encourage this sort of behaviour much more than the PC did! And let's not even get into what can be done with a copy of ResEdit and your System folder.

    (Disclaimer: I love Macs. I have four of the little beasties. And I actually *do* like the customization features; but they *do* waste time. Badly.)

    Where I work, we're running on NT (*feh*) and have been forbidden to customize the themes. No reasoning was given (personally, I think it's to keep us soulless drones, but that's just my opinion). Still, I've seen people sitting around and playing with their window colors, their icons, etc, etc, for hours, instead of reading /. to goof off like the rest of us usually do.
  • Having a "crappy Microsoft UI theme" wouldn't be the same as the Windows UI. It wouldn't inherit the universal UI settings and there's no possible way it can get font size or preferences.

    It might look like the default Windows theme but it doesn't behave the same at all. My mother prefers the 'rainy day' colour scheme and Mozilla's theme can't be expected to understand that. Following the base windows UI there is a chance (on that platform) that blind users/visually impaired users could get spoken what each button does via reading out the tooltips - but with each bit of software having it's own way of themeing it does limit scope.

    Considering Mozilla's Gecko is entirely seperate though, I see no reason why Netscape/AOL can't just embed their rendering component into a windows interface as an option.

  • I'm a big fan of this site, which I first discovered through a link on the gnome website. Most of their reviews are spot on. And I like show this sight to young, impressionable CSCI students at the local university.

    With regard to the lack of Linux examples on the sight (I can only recall one), this certainly has nothing to do with lack of material. They are Windows users primarily, and not many Linux users send them examples. If we all started sending Linux examples to them, I doubt that they would be able to keep up with the volume.


  • You may get a lot of junk skins, but you'll also get some very good ones. Some will be better than the OS norms.

    I doubt that this will be true, generally; although a very few exceptions may turn up. The people who like skins are not generally those who value UI consistency highly. I, for one, am part of the latter group.

    When I'm looking for a new app, I deliberately seek out those which use gtk because that's the primary toolkit I use on my system. The look and feel is just how I like it and I can control that globally from a single preferences dialog. I don't want an application-specific skin for each program on my system.

    Back when the Mozilla project made the decision to use gtk as their toolkit, my reaction was, "Great! It will fit right in with my system." But then they went and invented their own widgets. What's the point of using gtk (I'm not sure that they still are) if they were just going to scrap everything about the toolkit that made it useful?

    Now I understand that they are using the gecko rendering engine to make the widgets and menus and such. And that's cool and modular, but it's also bothersome and inconsistent. Take a look at this [] and see if you can find the application that looks out of place.

    I can probably find a skin to make it look and feel like the rest of the system, but it will probably do so imperfectly. And why should I have to? Everything else follows the look-and-feel rules I'v established without my having to go find a workaround to make it behave.

    [As a side note about the default Mozilla/Netscape skin: Does anybody else miss the back button history, which allows you to go back past the previous page that just redirected you to the current page? Just an example.]

    In the end, all I can do is sigh and wait patiently for someone to take gecko and develop a http thin client which does only web browsing and does it well. Not one that also wants to be my mail client, newsgroup client, address book, and web publisher; I have other applications which do those things well, and I don't need or want a web browser that soaks up many megabytes with duplicated functionality. I wish I had the spare time to develop such an app myself.


  • The point is that skins shouldn't be made THE DEFAULT. Not that they shouldn't be put in, or that the capability shouldn't exist, or whatever...just that making a skinned UI the default (as in NS6) is going to be confusing for a lot of people, probably even most people.
  • The general theory is that some people don't want to use their computers for anything except reconfiguring and customizing software. Occasionally those people run out of things to do and do something productive. But do we really want this kind of person being productive? Who knows what drivel they'll produce. Skins are an ingenious way of preventing such idle hands. What we need are more skinnable applications and more skins. Perhaps someone should write a robot to pull images of the web and generate thousands of skins. This will keep skin-happy people busy even longer, downloading, installing, and deleting, and generally out of society.
  • The ability to alter the UI to one's personal liking and maximum efficiency is a benefit that computers brings to us.

    Putting an X-Files or Simpsons theme on a browser or MP3 player has nothing to do with efficiency. If anything, one could argue that skins slow an application down and make it harder to see UI widgets, but there's no efficiency argument for the flipside.
  • All this bemoaning the death of consistent GUIs neglects one thing.
    Users are already exposed to an infinite number of themed interfaces;
    they are called web sites.

    No one expects websites to have a consistent look and feal. In fact,
    their variety is one of the things that makes the web such a vibrant
    place. By adding configurable eye candy Mozilla is simply blurring
    the distinction between the web and the desktop.

  • Let's face it, if something CAN be done -- someone will want to do it. In fact, a whole group of people may find they like it.

    Give people the choice! X Windows 4.0 should already have skinning capabilities built in.

    Instead, it's going to have to be an add-on and further fragment the desktop/window-manager world.

    Do I want my desktop to look like a scene from Star Wars? Not all the time, but it is cool when I'm in the mood. Having my computer configured the way I want it does increase my productivity.

    About that mother that is scared of change, I say so what? If they don't want it, don't make them -- but I do, so I should be able to.

  • I don't get it. I've used Netscape 6. Yeah, the scrollbar has a little = in the middle of it. So what? The buttons change to a solid box when you move the mouse over it. So what?

    Everything works the same! You press the left mouse button on a button and hey, it does what it's supposed to do.

    I fail to understand how everyone equates it to a "new GUI OS". If someone can't figure out that a scrollbar with a = in the middle of it works the exact same as one without an = in the middle of it, this whole planet is in trouble. Everything works the way you'd expect it to. Or, at least, everything works the way I expect it too.

    And to be honest, I kind of like the "different" look. It seems alot more crisp that the sloppy Win32 gui.
  • I thought I must be the only Linux user who hated skinable apps!

    I use Linux all day every day. And I want my display to be as clean and as clear as possible. I want my widgets instantly recognizable, equal in size, and consistently laid out.

    Don't get me wrong, I am quite happy to change my GTK theme or Enligtenment theme occasionally, as long as everything remains consistent (and clear - why are most of the Enlightenment themes unusably dark? Too much late night hacking? The Sawmill selection seems better). But I usually end up back at Default, because Netscape 4.x and Xemacs don't use GTK widgets, and Default looks closest to their native appearance.

    Gecko I love. But Mozilla and Xmms insist on making their own separate (if mutable) identity and sacrifice usability by smothering themselves in decorations which don't reflect the rest of the UI.

    Xemacs has the right idea - you customize not the appearance, but the functionality. I want to add buttons to mozilla which turn off images, or disable cookies, I don't want to change what the buttons look like.

    Fortunately they are open source. When someone writes a conventional GTK frontend to gecko, I will be first in the queue to beta test, or maybe even code if some of my other projects let up.
  • Yes, the solution is to either get some human factors experience or hire some people who do, and can design a good UI.

    From there, the developers should work to the standard of the customer/user requirements documents (i.e., user manuals, screenshots, prototype interfaces [you're creating them during the process, RIGHT?]) instead of the developer requirements documents and manuals.

    Otherwise you may get something that seems intuitive to a group of technically minded programmers but completely misses the mark on customer requirements.
  • "On the other hand, themeable individual apps (winamp, xmms, etc) seem a bit daft to me"

    The standard user interface in an OS may be counter-intuitive to the normal user when considering the ease of use paradigm in many applications. There are many examples of this for strict "everyday consumer" type applications, which use non-standard interfaces, but are more intuitive than the standard operating system interface. Of course, they often hide the power of complexity to improve ease of use.

    Example of this are, Adobe PhotoDeluxe (, MGI Photosuite - Videowave (, anything from MetaCreations (, dreamweaver (, etc etc et al.
  • I have a touchpad. Its right and bottom edges are programmed to control programs' scroll bars. I think it is cool. I don't have to move my pointer to drag the scrollbar. My wrists don't hurt as much. They don't work on skinned scrollbars. I don't like that. If that isn't a problem with usability, I don't know what is. I can't use tab and space combos to move around controls, check and uncheck chkboxes, do stuff with dropdowns, etc. Sometimes some functionality like arrow keys are imitated. Sometimes they are not. They could have used real controls. They could use callbacks to change the appearance of them. If they had done that, all our fancy hardware would still work. All our shortcut keys would still work. We would all be happy.
  • After reading the article, I don't really agree with it. If someone wants to have teeny tiny dark blue print on a black background that's their own perogative. I think more customization is a GOOD thing. I wish I could do more customization with my Win98 (especially get rid of My Documents and Temporary Internet Files) and according to things I've read, it seems that MS is getting rid of some customization that users used to have (I always rearrange what's under the start menu to have just 5-6 folders with just the executables - I don't need a folder for EACH company, in addition to all the READMEs and Uninstallers they want to put under there. Even if they close up folders you don't use very often, it still isn't how _I_ want it to be.) Once I get sick of all my windows games, I'll put Linux on there...

    Anyways, I don't think that all your applications HAVE to look and act the same. Who is the Grand Pooba of interface design who says that all the applications have to look like Microsoft windows? Just cause MS designed it doesn't mean it's so great and then some. Just because I use Windows doesn't mean I want all my programs to look like Windows. I think that other companies CAN do it better than MS can, so what the hell, why not try?

    "nobody wants a hammer with racing stripes and a horn."

    Maybe YOU don't... a horn might be interesting, and racing stripes would probably ensure that your neighbors wouldn't steal it. My mom has baby blue spraypainted tools.

    MY computer is MY computer.
  • >MDI is, IMHO, not a suitable interface for anything at all.

    That's not a very humble opinion.

    It was an Honest one though. I don't think I have any Humble opinions. ;-)

    (Blimey. MDI can open. Worms all over floor.)

    A simple tabbed-MDI interface provides the only reasonable way for me to manage this scenario.

    I don't, in this case, see how a tabbed MDI interface is much better than a tabbed SDI interface. In fact I've seen many Windows users work exactly like this; all windows maximised, and switching between them using tabbing or the taskbar.

    This does not meet my needs.

    I also work with many source files open at once, plus documentation, man pages, and so on. To program efficiently, I need to keep more than one open at once so I can edit one whilst reading information from another. This is what windowing was invented for, and a single-window-tabbed interface, whether MDI or SDI, just isn't good enough.

    What MDI - in full, subwindow mode - does is to restrict the control I have over placement of windows, by confining all windows owned by one application to a rectangle, which itself obscures everything under it.

    (an AC wrote:)

    For one thing, there's an index to all toplevel windows, the taskbar; an MDI'd window isn't there, so I have to get at its main window, which usually has to be maximized (making all other windows unusable because of M$'s idiocy in tying focus to stacking order)

    Having used WMs that obey this, ones with separate stacking order and focus, and ones with focus-follows-mouse, I'd have to agree with this. Many's the time I want to enter something into a big text window or something whilst looking at information in a small informational window positioned on top of the main one. Windows MDI makes this situation even more common.

    (It also probably makes things considerably harder for the novice, as positionable windows within positionable windows can get terribly confusing.)

    It's the same interface that generations of emacs programmers have used happily and productively, even if they never called it MDI.

    I rather prefer using emacs in SDI mode though. That is, running more than one copy in X.

    later in thread...

    That's sort of my point: that virtual desktops and [maximised] MDI are mostly interchangeable.

    That's an interesting point. I think the difference is that with virtual desktops, you can choose how to group your windows, by project or task, and easily start doing some task on a different virtual desktop without affecting the others. With MDI, you're limited to grouping by owner application. I do not often find such grouping terribly useful.

    This comment was brought to you by And Clover.
  • Gimmie a break. I guarantee you, at the last company I was at (600+) I was the only person who knew what the hell GREP was (although the funny thing is, b/c your Mac comment, it was unsing grep in BBedit on the Mac)
  • "In my opinion, those people who most use themes and stuff of that nature are the kind of people who enjoying using their computer for hacking and learning. Those who just see the computer as a tool for typing documents are not
    going to go mad over a pretty new widget look. Therefore, those that are most likely to use themes are the most likely to adapt to the changes without any problems."

    You know I haven't written a single really good program (I think that's the definition of a "hacker") and I like pretty things. I just have a shitty machine that dosn't like me at all. Dosn't like to work well, and generally can't handle all the really cool things that people like to do nowadays.

    I figure by the time I actually get a machine to do decent theming and such all of the world will have moved on. One of the things that I notice is that even though I have a 256 color compatable X server I don't get all the nice little effects and such (transparent gizmos, non-grainy pictures, any sound, etc).

    This is not for a want of use but because people generally set their sights too high recently.

    Computers have I think generally betrayed mankind into forcing various aspects of humanity to become much, more difficult and at the expence of functionality.

    Also it seems like people like to also do a lot of configuring out of distribution. That really is bad news. In general to get all of the function out of linux you have to sit there and download 50+ Mb of code because it's not in the standard distribitions. Then you end up eating up your space with that wonderful 100Mb source package that you needed for that one little tic-tac-toe program.

    Over at (as it cited in the abstract of the article on the main page) they are using an alpha/beta version of blackbox that apparently seems to not be in the standard version of debian. Also themes are not really in any distribution except a few basic simple geometric/color combinations.

    I do more on my computer than just typing documents (that's why I like xemacs and not vi). And I would like better support for my machine. Personally I like svgatextmode and the like to make the console better (however the author betrayed that little program). I am now able to get a very nice small font on my console (132x80x8) with a gr8x6. Works well except for some wacky problems with long lines that spill over and overwrite the beginning in bash.
  • But that is a problem with specific skinned apps, not with skinning as a concept.

    That *is* a problem with skinning as a implementation, but *not* with customizable UI as a concept.

    Sure a skin can make my desktop look more "mine" but that is only skin deep (pun intended). Skins give me no chance of configuring what I really want to change, like keyboard shortcuts, tab order, defaults etc.

    Those things are not as easy to configure as a simple bitmap and what's worse: A skinned application makes it harder to really configure anything, since the visual aid (skin) might not be compatible with the altered functionality. (if a button says "Play..." but it's keyboard equivalent is "L" for example)

    Skins are a fun add-on. Let's keep it at that.

  • I suppose it depends entirely on what the individual considers to be important functionality. If you're talking of items normally found on the browser window which have been removed, well how many times did you click on that Shopping button?

    Here's a screenshot(bitmap) [] of Netscape 6 for windows. You will notice that besides being jam packed with options everywhere for every bit of frivolousness AOL can throw at you several key browser features are gone or in hiding. E.g. the home button is reduced to a line of text in the midst of other lines of text, there's no print button, it jars with the rest of the OS by looking like a glorified Java app, and no visual indicator to show if a site is secure or not. These are things I spotted after using the browser for an hour or so. After a while it got so irritating I switched back to Netscape 4.72 & IE 5.5.

    My point is and has been that the user interface is badly designed and instead of focusing on skins and themes and whatnot, the Netscape team is should be redesigning the user interface to make it as usable as possible. Change is good but if it comes at the price of sacrificing a usable piece of software then one must wonder if it is worth it.

  • >After reading the article, I don't really agree with it. If someone wants to have teeny tiny dark blue print on a black background that's their own

    Fair enough, don't let anyone stop you. But when I first start a program, I want it to look like the OS I'm using. Netscape 6 doesn't. The default UI in it is terrible, removing useful functionality from 4.7.
  • Articles like the one on I usually ignore, because they essentially are going on a rant for nothing. They forget a primary notion about skins -- you don't /have/ to use the damn things.

    The article mentions Netscape 6 as an example of skin usage gone bad. Exactly how do people form opinions on an option that isn't even implemented yet? Until the article writer actually uses the skins option (which isn't available in PR1), I wouldn't put too much faith in it. On a discussin of interface design, stagnation is never a good thing. Ok, sure Netscape 6 is a huge divergence away from standard browser design, but my personal opinion is that this is not a bad thing at all. In fact I actually find the design less cluttered and therefor more usable than before. You can use or not use entire sections of the window as you see fit, and remove them if you don't want to. Again, there's choice involved here.


  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 10, 2000 @02:53AM (#1142360)

    As an experianced IT consultant working on a research project on the small but growing phenomenon of "freeware" projects, as exemplified by Linus Torveldes operating system Linux, I read Slashdot for insights into the "open source" community.

    My professional view on the matter of UIs is that this fragmentation of interfaces is very bad from the customers point of view. What people want is a great, innovative UI, sure, but they want it to be the same for everything they use. The Linux desktop, Gnome, has some odd features which require users to think carefully, and many of Linux's applications break these rules to implement their own.

    This situation is intolerable from a customer's perspective. They do not want to have to relearn a UI for every application they want to use, and they to not want some of the so-called "features" which Gnome supports. What is needed is a simple, easy to learn and intuitive UI such as Microsoft's Windows UI, which is constantly innovating whilst remaining simple to use and consistant. Until Gnome comes up with something equivalent, Linux will never succeed in the marketplace like Windows has.

  • All I want is a consistent user interface. If people want to skin and customise their browser, more power to their elbow. But what I happen to want right now, more than anything in the world, is for Netscape 6 to have standard Windows menus and buttons (or standard KDE menus and buttons if I'm at my Linux box).

    Sure, if I had not grown out of my penchant for late 80's Pop Will Eat Itself album covers, I'm sure I'd love the "new" Netscape 6 interface (well, I would if it wasn't as slow as a bucket of sick, that is- on my P500 I drag my mouse across the menus and they all momentarily open at once forming a horrid Java-like mess).

    As it happens, I want to be able to sit down with new software and use it straight away with no nasty surprises. If I learn how to use Notepad, I'm 99% of the way there to learning Paint Shop Pro or any one of thousands of Win95 applications. With Netscape 6 it's like learning a whole new GUI OS all over again.

    If someone REALLY wants to force a skin down my throat by, AT THE VERY LEAST I WANT THE ABILITY TO TURN IT OFF AND GO BACK TO THE DEFAULT GUI/OS SKIN.

    Yay, open source rules! But so do standards. Nescape/Mozilla chrome sucks!

    Oh, and it would help if Netscape 6's cascading style sheets actually worked properly (try changing the colours of A:LINK.FOOBAR and see what I mean).


  • by ToastyKen ( 10169 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @04:52AM (#1142362) Homepage Journal
    From the developer's point, it's easier to either use standard widgets or themable ones. Mixing both widget libraries is not something funny, and you'll have your code full of unnecessary switches or if/else-if/else.

    Yes, I know that, but since when has writing applications been about the developer? Shouldn't it be for the user?! Whatever is good for the USER is what should get implmented.

  • Maybe people who are used to UI inconsistency are fine with the Mozilla interface, but as a Mac user, I expect my applications to FEEL like Mac applications. I don't even mind if the buttons and text fields look different, but they need to feel consistent, and the UI in Mozilla does not.

    The Buttons are tolerable, but the way Mozilla ignores my text-highlight-color setting, the way its popup menus work and feel, the ugly use of Helvetica in the interface instead of optimized-for-screen Geneva, etc., really bug me.

    I've always been a huge Netscape supporter since I've always liked the page rendering "feel" of Netscape better than IE, but if this is where Mozilla is going, I'll have to switch to IE. I understand the ease of cross-platform development brought on by XUL, but it is not, to me, worth the crappy interface.
  • by ToastyKen ( 10169 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @03:47AM (#1142364) Homepage Journal
    But people using programs like WinAmp and Mozilla have no choice! They can't even use a normal Windows or Mac interface if they want to, let alone having it as the default.

    I think the way to do things is to have the default look use the standard OS widgets, then have the option of using skins if you really want to.
  • by jscott ( 11965 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @03:29AM (#1142365) Homepage
    Now that's one of the funniest things I've read on slashdot.
    Too bad I cannot moderate.

  • by funkman ( 13736 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @03:04AM (#1142366)
    Before a user can place a new skin on an application. The default skin must have the same look and feel as the OS. Netscape 6's, which I am using right now, current UI would be nice as a skin but sucks as the default UI. How to access (and how they are clicked) the menus are not with the standards of Win32. (Yes I use Win95, sue me, some people don't have a choice). Any application should be consisent with the look and feel of the OS. Mac was great with this in the "old days". Are they still (Just a question, not implying anything)?

    Anyways, onto my original rant. I like skins, I like that you can change the UI easily, sometimes without any programming effort. It can let people who know UI focus on UI. UI is the most important aspect of a system. If the user can't use it, the application is worthless, regardless of what the app can do.

  • by drudd ( 43032 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @04:21AM (#1142367)
    The great thing about themes is that the people who want to use them can, and the people who are afraid of them probably don't even know they exist to begin with!

    The problem with Netscape is they are planning to have a default theme which breaks current GUI standards, thus leading to possible confusion for the latter group.

    I think Netscape has to (and really already has) two points:
    1) Making your program look flashy gives the impression to the newbie user that your program is somehow "futuristic" and better than the competition without really getting under the hood (sports car syndrome).

    2) Giving your program a flashy look may confuse newbie users and give IT managers headaches having to retrain their users.

    I think the default skin Netscape chose is at least intuitive enough so (2) is not a very large issue. One of Mozilla's major strengths is its support within the hacker community, which is rewarded with the ability to make it look whatever f'ked up way they want.

  • by MosesJones ( 55544 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @03:37AM (#1142368) Homepage

    The basic principle of all UI design has been for years and years Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS) or reductive design to give it an academic name. Anything on the interface that does not add to the information is detracting from the information so should be removed. Some people will bitch and moan that it doesn't look "pretty" and they nicely fall under the heading of "Well I Like It" WILI design.

    Look at slashdot, bugger all colours, a few Icons for information and basic basic tools. And guess what its pretty much ideal for its target audience. Take a "Tomy" toy for a 4 year old. Big and Bright with easy controls. Take the TV Remote, some people have got only 6 buttons on theirs. Simplicity IS an effective interface.

    On the other end of the scale is Themes, their entire concept is based around what looks cool, this isn't the same as an effective interface.

    The Mona Lisa is a cracking painting, but it sucks as a User interface.
  • by radja ( 58949 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @03:38AM (#1142369) Homepage
    The Linux desktop? hmm.. last I checked there were several desktops available. It's not exactly my point of interest, but there's also KDE (and probably more, but KDE and Gnome are the two largest I think). Let's face it: Windows is not that intuitive either, doubleclicking just isn't a very natural operation. There is no such thing as the perfect UI. Different people want different UIs. I happen to like the strength and flexibility of a commandline, but commandlines have the disadvantage of having a higher treshold than a GUI, if only because a GUI will show buttons/menus/whatever and thus show, on first sight, at least some of the possibilities of the app. This makes a GUI easy to use for new users. What it all comes down to is that people often don't want to be put in a straightjacket of the manufacturer of the software. Not even when they call it a comfy sweater.

  • by pkj ( 64294 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @05:40AM (#1142370)

    The interface problem with Mozilla/Netscape has nothing at all to do with skins!

    The problem has everything to do with the difficulties of building a large, complicated, GUI for multiple windowing systems. The only way to get fully native look and feel for each operating system (those that support such a concept, that is) is to hand code the interface for each system.

    This, in turn, leads to several subproblems. The most obvious is that you need the staff to code for each of these platform. This problem is fairly well solvable in a commercial shop where you get get all the GUI programmers in the same room with the developers. But with Mozilla, everyone is both a code functionality developer as well as a GUI developer. It is hard enough to find people qualified to work on Mozilla, but can you imagine if they needed to know multiple GUI programming systems as well?

    The first reponse of the clueful person will be to ask why an abstraction layer to the native GUI is not possible. It is possible, and in fact there are several commercial packages that do this. Unfortunately, you are stuck with the whole lowest comon denominator problem. Every feature missing from each windowsystem must be removed from the abstraction library, and what you are left with just reallt isn't usable. From a technical perspective, there are enough differences in API paradigms pretty darn tricky to begin with.

    So in the case of Mozilla you have absolutely no choice but to develop your own programming API from the ground up and implement it at the back end with your own widget set. And once you've done this, it becomes trivial to make it themeable. Even the people that hate themes and think they are just plain silly must admit that themes and themeable apps have a great popularity which must be catered to.

    It is unfortunate that it is so easy to draw the conclusion that the interface is as fubared as it is on Win/Mac systems just to obtain themeability, but nothing could be further from the truth.

    And mostly I'm surprised that after almost 200 comments nobody has actually mentioned this yet (or if they did, that it has not yet been moderated up to level 2, a threshold I never read below...)


  • by Niggle ( 68950 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @04:28AM (#1142371) Homepage
    If changing some of the really bad GUIs in the Hall of Shame was as easy as a 50k download, how long would those interfaces last?

    I suspect most truly bad UIs are due to programmers with little HMI experience or training. I know I was guilty of crap GUIs at one time. I'm better now I hope.

    Splitting the UI from the actual code could be a great benefit. It should let the people with some talent in that direction concentrate on GUIs without having to be able to code the actual app. Meanwhile, the coders can get on with the nuts and bolts without "wasting" time on the interface. Think of it as open-sourcing the UI seperately from the application.

    You may get a lot of junk skins, but you'll also get some very good ones. Some will be better than the OS norms. If we're lucky, we may even see some truly useful UI innovations appearing from people who couldn't otherwise contribute. Actually, I suppose this depends on how much flexibility there is in XUL (or similar GUI languages). Are you limited to combining existing widgets in new ways or is there scope for actually making new ones without actual coding?
  • by Bob Ince ( 79199 ) <> on Monday April 10, 2000 @03:15AM (#1142372) Homepage


    ...because they'll bring to Windows the same UI fragmentation and confusion that X has always had.

    Skins themselves are not necessarily a bad thing. Global, desktop-wide skins where all apps are automatically customised to have a certain look, are clearly a Good Thing. Separate skins for every application causes nothing but pain. As the UI hall of shame [] repeatedly tries to get us to notice, no application is so important that it justifies having its own, completely different, style of UI. That includes Mozilla. Unfortunately, the desirable default state of "use whatever the current style settings for Windows or GTK or whatever I'm running on" is not easily codable.

    James Sherman wrote:

    Now even microsoft break their own UI guidelines (Have you noticed the way the latest office bypasses MDI?).

    and though I agree with everthing he says, I still commend Microsoft for moving away from MDI. I just wish they'd done it by having a global option for MDI-or-separate-windows, rather than just stopping using it. MDI is, IMHO, not a suitable interface for anything at all.

    One good use of skins and customisation in general, though, is to cut down on useless clutter. When you've got toolbars and toolbars full of crap put there by marketing people, as advertising space and to show the range of bloatware features available, it's great to be able to get rid of it.

    This comment was brought to you by And Clover.
  • by guran ( 98325 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @03:43AM (#1142373)
    Yes, by all means, customize your *own* computer anyway you like. Just...

    Leave the standard interface as default!!!

    On a windows machine: let your apps work like windows programs out of the box
    On a mac: let them work like mac apps
    On a Linux box: Well pick *some* standard.

    Why? because someone will have to learn how to use that app and I bet they would rather spend their time getting to know the real functionality (including any customization) then learning what to click on.

    Dont make a hammer with racing stripes and a horn, make a vanilla hammer with racing stripe and horn add-ons!

    Some driver might prefer to have the acccelerator to the left in their car. OK so change it. I think you would agree that a car manufacturer should stick to the standard.

    Some aspects of the Win GUI suck big time, but if you cannot do *substantially* better, then stick to the standard. Want chrome? Get an add-on. Tired of the whole environment? Get another OS...

    And while you're at it, check out the interface hall of shame to read more.

  • by Dracos ( 107777 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @04:57AM (#1142374)

    The review of NS6 at c|net [] said that the ability to change the chrome will be enabled in the final version (slated for late this year). I too think the default chrome is ugly, but I can deal with it because this is a beta release. I also wish I could find how to get it to start without the sidebar.

    As far as learning a new UI...not really. All UI's have gone through some amount of convergence. Because Mozilla's source code is ~95% identical across all platforms, a greater amount of UI convergence is to be expected. As far as I've read about XUL [], even the menubar can be changed. This is obviously not intended for browser use, but an allowance for application design in general. If skinners want to abuse this, then don't use their skins.

    There have been some skins made for the milestone releases. Check out []. I tried installing the Navigator Classic [] chrome, but NS6 just crashed.

    Let's hope someone at Netscape realizes how ugly the default chrome is, and changing it is enabled in PR2.

    "Integer: a number that represents any valid floating-point value"
  • Most of the theme writers have one goal - to make a cool looking theme. They certainly do this most of the time. However, usability is almost always lost in the process.

    These are the top problems with themes that I have found (mainly from using xmms themes, and I have yet to find a good one):

    1) Radio buttons should have distinguishable on and off states, and any user should be able to tell if the radio button is on or off. Seems simple, huh? It doesn't ususally happen. Most are overly 3-D ized, and when a user presses the radio button, it is supposed to be depressed, and turns slightly darker. "Darker equals on" is not exactly intuitive.

    2) Are the buttons even visible? Again, to those using overly 3d displays, the buttons are invariable the same color as the background, but beveled. In xmms, as a bonus, the buttons are also extremely tiny. I can't even see the "close" button, I just have to guess where it is. Contrast is your friend, make use of it.

    3) For god's sake people, when make sure all the buttons have some indication of what they do! This frequently is a problem with window manager buttons. You present the user with 3 buttons without labels, because it looks sleeker that way. But it's unusable.

    4) Is the text readable? Please make sure it stands out...

    I'm sure others can come up with more suggestions...

  • by c.r.o.c.o ( 123083 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @03:07AM (#1142376)
    Well, I happen to be a gnome user (I am running Window Maker + gnome), and I tend to disagree with you. It is different from Windoze, but the features you are talking about take just a bit of time to get used to.

    But even supposing you're right, there _is_ a desktop environment that does a really god job at copying Windoze. It's KDE.

    I set it as the default desktop for the other users on my box, and when one of my friends (one that would fit into that category which would be bothered by differences in the UI) used it, he asked me what cool app was I using instead of the windoze taskbar.

    He was talking about the KDE panel.

    So Linux has come up with "something equivalent". Actually, all the window managers and all the desktop environments in Linux are "something equivalent". But imho, kde is as close to "something identical" as possible.

  • by JasonOrrill ( 137618 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @04:51AM (#1142377) Homepage
    I think some of us here might be missing the point. While a lot of skins might be a little whacked-out, the only folks who are likely to use them are people who know what they're getting into in the first place. Any weirdness that follows is the user's own fault, & he can always switch it back.

    However, the issue raised in SUCK about non-standard interfaces (Quicktime, most any web site) is hugely important. Folks get so used to seeing things in certain places, that changing them around can cause all kinds of problems. I see that all the time when someone in one of our workshops (I work in a university where we have a lot of faculty "click here, do that" workshops) who is normally a Windows user sits down at a Mac. They often can't figure out how to close windows, and assume that if the window goes away then the application must have also quit.

    This is something I see as a potential problem for Mozilla/Netscape, unless they develop platform-specific skins for Windows, Mac, etc. Apps should always start out with the default behavior expected on a given system...from that point if the user wants to apply his own look & feel, more power to him. In the case of Netscape 6, I would even go so far as to recommend that they mimic Netscape 4.x to a great extent, to lessen the learning curve required by Joe Average User.
  • by dazedNconfuzed ( 154242 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @03:36AM (#1142378)
    Most user interfaces seem designed by people who don't actually know what the goals really are or how to achieve them in a way that actually works for real users. We've been so standardized on 3D widgets, drop shadows, stupid menu layouts, etc. that most developers can't even imagine a better way.

    Edward Tufte wrote a series of books [] on visual portrayal of information. In them he analyzes how people actually perceive images & text, and examines high (and low) quality examples of doing the job right.

    I made a distinct effort to follow these principles in my last UI project. Other developers fought aginst it, sticking to their pointless and distracting 3D buttons, poor word selections, etc...because that's all they knew and they wouldn't (couldn't?) even consider that there might be a better way. The resulting design, rejecting the de-facto "we've always done it this way" standards, was superior to previous designs.

    When designing a UI, take the time to carefully review the actual requirements, and study the right way to do it. Pick up Tufte's books [] and open your eyes.

  • by Ranger Rick ( 197 ) <slashdot&raccoonfink,com> on Monday April 10, 2000 @03:13AM (#1142379) Homepage
    99% of the skins out there are a usability nightmare. However, I think it's funny that he targets Mozilla/Netscape 6, which is one of the only programs that has an actual excuse for having skins, other than "to make it look pretty".

    The newer HTML/CSS/etc. specs require certain standards in size and placement of controls, and other such things, and the only way to accurately match the specs is to implement the same controls on every platform, instead of relying on all platforms to have the same native controls (which is not gonna happen).

    By that point, they were already pretty much there as far as themeing (sp? theming?), so they figured "what the hell?" and made a uniform engine for all of the controls in mozilla.

  • by tuffy ( 10202 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @04:00AM (#1142380) Homepage Journal
    I'm probably in the minority in this, but I don't want all my apps looking and feeling identical - because they're not. For example, sometimes I have the same app performing different functions (such as a certain xterm connected to a remote location) and while it's easy to change the title string, I'd like to have it stand out even more than that. So, I deliberately make it inconsistant by giving it a different titlebar appearance than the rest. The result, for me, is improved efficiency through inconsistancy.

    I'm not against consistancy by default; I don't want my GTK windows popping up with random themes in each. But I want to option to make special apps stand out with the use of skins for a variety of reasons. I believe skins are just a tool. Though they can be abused quite easily, I think they have some good potential also.

  • by FallLine ( 12211 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @04:30AM (#1142381)
    Software exists to please the user, for most users this simply means getting the task done without confusing them. You are only one user. There may be a couple thousand like you, but you are still in the minority. It is fine if developers want to create skins, but they should realize that if they make this the default (or the only option), it has negative consequences for most users in most cases (except for most of these open source projects, which appeal mostly to "geeks").

    So if I designed a "cool" (obviously subjective, but so are themes) bus with obstacles that only a jock could clear, this is fine by you? Forget old people, handicap people, geeks, etc. Because "you" are scared, maybe we should ditch modified busses to? Sounds pretty reasonable, if your intent is to serve as many people as possible.

  • by Tim C ( 15259 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @03:20AM (#1142382)
    Personally, one of the things I absolutely adore about Linux is that so many things are customisable to a degree simply not permitted by Windows.

    From an everday usage point of view, the thing I most hate about Windows is the tendency for new windows to jump to the top and steal the focus. It drives me absoutely crazy, and yet, I have found no way of disabling the feature (if anyone knows of one, please let me know!!)

    Not so under Linux - with WindowMaker and Enlightenment at least, this and a whole host of other features are completely customisable. I can set it up just the way I like it - I can even have shaped window borders, which I love (yes, I know you can have similar things under Windows, but so far, I've only found two programs - WinAmp and Yamp - that allow you to do this...).

    The same thing applies to skins. Yes, I know that there are an almost unbelievable number of bad ones out there - but no-one is forcing you to use them. The ability to apply a skin/theme to a program lets the user make it look more pleasing to them, which helps make using it more enjoyable. More often than not in my experience, the default skin/theme(s) that ship with any given program (mp3 player, window manager, whatever) are "plain but functional" at best. That's fine; I'd much rather the programmer(s) concentrate on getting it working well than looking pretty. Let others do that; after all, that's part of the Open Source way :-)

    I agree that we need to be careful about designing UIs, to try to make them as easy to use as possible, but that shouldn't be at the expense of customisability and aesthetic considerations.
    Surely good software can look good too?


  • by PapaZit ( 33585 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @02:57AM (#1142383)
    While skins are simply obnoxious most of the time, they are finally making UI designers consider flexibility. I find it depressing that so many UIs rely on their own hard-coded interface, especially when that interface sucks.

    Take, for example, the humble web page. Assume the existance of a user who has figured out that the monitor is not a piece of paper and would prefer white text on a black background. Now, see how long that user can survive in a web where stupid designers set background color to white while allowing the user to keep their preferred font color (which is white, in this case.)

    Many programs make this assumption. MS Word uses your preferred background, while forcing a black font, going for a HGTTG-style black-on-black interface. Ghostview for unix used to do this too.

    Skins are usually annoying, but if a designer is considering skins, they're far more likely to use the appropriate UI toolkits and implement the extendability properly. This, in my opinion, is better for everyone.
  • I think anything that offers the user a greater choice is a good thing, as long as it is not at the expense of decent performace.

    I would say though that many themes are implemented in the wrong place IMO. Themeable widget sets for example are an excellent idea (even better if the theme can be selected at application level like with MUI for the amiga for example (does gtk+ allow this?)), because the application programmer doesn't have to do any extra work to make his/her app themeable (and ithe code is also therefore smaller and probably more easily maintained)

    On the other hand, themeable individual apps (winamp, xmms, etc) seem a bit daft to me. If your widget set doesn't allow the themeability you want in your app, why not propose some changes to it, or consider a new/different widget set instead of potentially effectively bypassing a users desired appearance.
  • by dennisp ( 66527 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @04:00AM (#1142385)
    I doubt the validity of this statement. People using their computer primarily as a tool for typing documents probably don't customize their machine because they don't know how. If they did, I would bet they would. I've worked at various companies, and "regular" users who only use their computers for word processing and excel also like customizing their desktop with a background picture of their family and their favorite colors, just as they would customize the layout of their desk with personal belongings. There are probably thousands of users using the skin customization program for IE, based on the easy install through activeX and the relatively easy install of skins.

    The only barrier is understanding and effort. Of course, some people like decorating their house, and some don't.

    As for the number of bad themes around, I would base that on the fact that, a) it takes effort to make a nice looking theme; and, b) one man's trash is another man's treasure (within an obvious bounded range).

    Is the default score to browse at 1 now, or is it just me?
  • by riggwelter ( 84180 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @03:11AM (#1142386) Homepage Journal

    The freedom of the user to choose what he or she wants what appears on their desktop looks like.

    What the Suck crew have got right is that where you have to use skins to use an app you want to use - one very important choice is taken away from the user, and that is the choice to have that app look the same (consistent, not boring) as every other one on their desktop.

    But that is a problem with specific skinned apps, not with skinning as a concept. As a concept, skinning works, Richard Stallman said "users should always have a choice", he was talking about free software, but it applies to user interfaces as well. If a person wants their desktop to look like the Star Trek LCARS system, let them - it doesn't mean the rest of us have to. Similarly, if a person wants Netscape 6 to look like the rest of their (Windows|Mac|Linux|etc) desktop, they should be allowed to.

    You can't legislate for what people find easier to use, or more pleasing on the eye, or more useful for impressing their friends (or whatever reason people customise their desktops), all you can, and should, do is allow them the freedom to do so anyway they choose.

  • by stang ( 90261 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @04:34AM (#1142387)

    winamp has a good many themes that do not mess with functionality

    Winamp, which popularized this whole app theming thing, is an excellent example of an application where themes, while they may not help functionality, certainly don't hurt it. It's a simple app, with a few buttons and an information display area. Most people who cannot program their VCR can use it to play tapes. They also don't have a problem using the CD player, and that's really all Winamp is, so making the buttons look like brushed aluminum doesn't really slow most users down.

    Additionally, Winamp is a parasitic application -- meaning that it usually runs alongside other applications, and the user rarely runs Winamp exclusively. The user spends little time working with Winamp itself, they're busy using their main applications, with Winamp playing in the background.

    What's needed is to spend more time working on the basic usability of applications and widgets. Go read (as mentioned before) the Interface Hall of Shame []. Read AskTog's [] rant about the differences in how Windows and the Mac handle cascading menus.

    Lemme tell you about my little improvement to widget usability. I'm working on an application that works as a Win32 Appbar (like the Start menu). It can be docked to any edge, and can be auto-hidden, staying out of the way until the user moves the mouse over the edge the appbar is docked to.

    When I first started testing it, I set the appbar properties to auto-hide and stuck it at the top of the screen (my Start bar, like most people's, is at the bottom). This sounds fine, but turned out to be a major irratant -- every time my mouse pointer hit the top of the screen (like, say, when I was going for a menu), the damn appbar would drop down! I'd then have to move the mouse pointer down, wait for the window to retract, then, slowly, move back up to the menu (without moving too high!), then make my selection.

    A simple timer, with a user-defined delay, solves this problem. When the mouse moves to the appbar's edge, a timer is started. If, when the timer expires, the mouse is still on the edge, the appbar will show itself. If the user clicks on the top edge (indicating they want to see the appbar immediately), the appbar will show without waiting for the timer.

    That's the kind of work UI designers should be doing.

    Alan Cooper [] once said that the web has set user interface design back 15 years. I agree. Instead of ensuring that your applications can be themed by every 31337 h4x0r with a warez copy of Photoshop, make the interface work better.

  • by jamesbulman ( 103594 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @03:00AM (#1142388) Homepage
    I like to skin winamp as much as the next man, but skinning things as fundamentally core to the os such as basic windows and menus does not lead to a productive environment.

    WindowBlinds had a novelty value for about 5 mins before it was rapidly removed. I need a clean, consistant and clear interface to get work done.
  • by fydfyd ( 150665 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @03:38AM (#1142389)
    In some particularly "consumer" oriented software like winamp, it is often impossible to create an interface that is even visible. I run my screen at resolutions of 1600x1200 and greater. Because of the lack of convention exhibited by winamp, I cannot get the current track information to even be readable. Moreover, the skins are merely chrome and seemingly cannot change the wretched layout of the base application. This is quite unfortunate because the core functions of the program (that is, playing music) are done quite well.

    Finally, haven't we learned anything from the bad web pages of days past? Pause the playing in winamp and the single most visible feature, the track time, begins to blink. I had paused the playback because I didn't want to pay attention to the player and now it forces my eye to come take a look. And while I'm on a rant, since when has the exact second of music that I'm listening to become the most salient feature of the interface? In my winamp window I find that I'm listening to "Funkadelic - Good Thought," with half of the title truncated, but I well informed that I've stopped at 7:12 (blink, blink, what, no milliseconds?) and that this particular stretch of music is encoded at 160kbps and 44kHz and that it is in stereo (no, not, mono that word is greyed out). I've got a volume slider that I know is a volume slider only because the volume changes when I move it, I've got a similarly unlabled balance slider for all of those critical balance changes that I always need to apply while listening. And finally, I'm happy to report that the "shuffle" button is twice as big as the "play" button, because, of course, you use it twice as often. Here's an improved winamp skin in only one line of ascii:

    Funkadelic - Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts |< || >|
    too bad I can't really make this a skin. If I want to "pause" the music then I press pause; if I want to "stop" the music then I can exit the application. I added the "forward track" and "backward track" as convinient chrome. If I want encoding details, I can pop a menu; if I want to shuffle, same thing.

    Okay, I think I've gotten that off my chest.

  • by Darchmare ( 5387 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @03:48AM (#1142390) Homepage
    While I like skins as much as the next guy, I have some serious problems with some projects which are using them as a replacement for good UI design.

    For example, Mozilla. For months myself and others had been providing dozens of reasons to implement native UI widgets instead of the hacked up bitmaps they are currently going with. Reasons?

    - Non-native UIs are generally slower than native ones, for whatever reason. I guess this could be fixed with enough work.

    - The 'look' of the UI is not consistant with the rest of the OS for those who choose not to use themes. Most people, believe it or not, will probably never switch their theme - or want to. Why should their browser stick out like a sore thumb?

    - If the look matches, the 'feel' usually does not. This is more important than it may appear to be at first. Something as subtle as how hierarchial menus are handled will often annoy or frustrate even advanced users.

    - Using non-native widgets (basically, bitmaps) often stops system-wide skin/theme programs from working. Your non-standard look and feel is rendered internally inconsistant.

    - Using non-native widgets is usually done so that less effort is needed to go cross-platform. Laziness. Do you want your Linux or MacOS program to behave like a Windows one, or vice versa?

    In the end, I have rarely/never seen a non-native interface, outside of the occasional game, that didn't look like a really ugly port.

    After much time conversing with the Mozilla folks, who presented a laundry list of reasons for the UI that were refuted time and time again by myself and others, the truth came out: AOL is giving these guys very little in the way of a budget to make an acceptable cross-platform browser. The way it was explained, we'd only end up with a Windows version if they DIDN'T go this route due to funding shortages. I fully blame AOL management for this.

    However, I still feel it is a mistake. Already reviews have been very mixed, even for a beta quality release (Netscape 6). It's not the obvious bugs and performance issues that bug me, but the so-called 'features' that appear very poorly thought-out from the start. Some of it is very very cool, but without a decent UI design, it's not looking good.

    I just hate to see AOL/Netscape's internal politics breaking the browser before it ever had a chance. If only Mozilla were truly 100% autonomous...

    - Jeff A. Campbell
    - VelociNews ( [])
  • by Siva ( 6132 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @03:13AM (#1142391) Homepage Journal
    i think this site was posted as a quickie a while back, but i'll post it here since it applies to this story: []

    this site is loaded with examples of poor UI design. they do a good job explaining exactly whats wrong with each example; its actually quite educational. its mostly windows and mac stuff, but i think i remember one or two examples from linux apps...


    Keyboard not found.
  • by Psiren ( 6145 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @02:47AM (#1142392)
    In my opinion, those people who most use themes and stuff of that nature are the kind of people who enjoying using their computer for hacking and learning. Those who just see the computer as a tool for typing documents are not going to go mad over a pretty new widget look. Therefore, those that are most likely to use themes are the most likely to adapt to the changes without any problems.

    Now weary traveller, rest your head. For just like me, you're utterly dead.
  • by voidzero ( 85458 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @03:18AM (#1142393) Homepage
    Shouldn't we get more UI designers to read and use the subtle wisdom of Edward Tufte, the chap who really understands how graphic design affects thinking, decision-making, and emotions. He could really teach these UI designers a thing or two about intelligent and tasteful design.

    There are three of his books which I would recommend without reservation:

    • The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983)
    • Envisioning Information (1990)
    • Visual Explanations : Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative (1997)
  • by Sax Maniac ( 88550 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @03:57AM (#1142394) Homepage Journal
    Most skinnable applicaations Suck(tm) because:

    - They require skins. I can't make WinAmp look like a normal Win32 application. Skinning should be an option.

    - Being bitmaps, they are resolution dependent. WinAmp on a 1280x1024 desktop is ridiculous, the controls are about a micron high. Double-size? Oh great, ugly pixel jaggies. You say I can just get a "bigger" skin? Well, what if I switch res? Why can't I just use it without having to go find these silly extras!?

    - They don't use standard controls. Oops, you can't use tabs, alt-accelerators, or the arrow keys,to navigate the controls. (Sure, accelerators work, but they are hidden, unlike the visual cues.) How many times have you been typing in a stupid homebrew text widget, and all the standard keys like Home/End/etc. don't work? GTK doesn't even always get this right.

    - People with visual or motor disorders probably can't use it. If I use a standard control, I can make the font larger if I can't see it; or if I might be blind I can attach voice navigation to it. Not on a skin.

    - They tend to ignore components of good UI design as much as most cruddy web sites do.

    UIs are UIs, including the web, including apps, including skins. A lot of UI research has taken place over the years. As computers go mainstream, we shouldn't be ignoring it, but heeding it even *more*.
  • by JamesSharman ( 91225 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @02:52AM (#1142395)
    I am personaly starting to get concerned about the advent of skinning along with some of the other changes in UI design. A couple of years ago you could sit down at a windoze machine and use just about and applications main features without thinking. Now even microsoft break their own UI guidelines (Have you noticed the way the latest office bypasses MDI?). GUI's under Linux has been struggling with the lack of any decent rules for UI design (At least none anyone pays any attention to) and I feel that something should be done to create a more consistent interface.
  • by (void*) ( 113680 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @02:52AM (#1142396)
    Why can't we just live along together? Isn't skins about customizablility? If some 3l33t h4ck0r wants to put some funny skins on his computer let him.

    For the rest of us who want to get things done, something simple would be enough. I propose that judging on useability standards be applied to the DEFAULT (or default few) skin/desktop/window manager. For all others, go ahead and customize it to your desire. (It is customizable, right?)

  • by res0 ( 132546 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @02:58AM (#1142397) Homepage

    But you also need to remember that those same people who just want to type and look at web pages are going to be using programs like Netscape 6 that, without even asking the user or anything, automatically use skins and the like.

    Believe me, my mom becomes confused when the desktop background is changed on a computer. What happens when, for example, Microsoft starts automatically configuring Windows to display an MSN "news summary" or something in the desktop? If my mom upgrades to that new version of Windows, she would be scared to death of the constantly changing background.

    She had a hard time adjusting to Windows 95 even because everything was different from what she was used to (Apple IIe/g's, DOS, Win 3.1). I still have to help her do many things.

    So regardless of who wants to use themes, the current trend is to say "Screw it, everyone wants themes" and not care about whether or not the users actually want the change in interface.

  • by Spiff28 ( 147865 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @04:06AM (#1142398)

    There is no reason to bitch about skins. The thing to bitch about is poor UI design.

    The average user wouldn't know what the hell I meant by "skinned app." If you're going to get into skins, you probably know enough about computers to not get terribly frightened when suddenly the 'look' of your program changes.

    If there's anything that can be rightfully bitched about it's poor design in the default interface. We Geeks may know enough to get a better interface/skin, but the average user may not. If the default breaks consistency, the average use is stuck with a crappy UI. (example: Sonique though cool looking isn't rectangular in it's default start-up state; they make up for this in coolness and still putting the X in the top-right)

    The ability to change the interface/shape of the app is a little worse, cause things will have both moved and changed looks when you change a skin (eg: Sonique, K-Jofol), so even a Geek will get lost from time to time. It's a hazard we put up with.

    The biggest advantage to skins/shape changes is they allow you to update the interface about as easily as you update the program. If I release an app that's got full skin/theme/shape support and my design is royally crappy, I can shift stuff around based on user feedback really easily. It's almost like the OOP applied to UI design.

    Computers are fast becoming the multi-purpose appliance of today. They are the typewriter, the fax, the e-mail, the internet, the jukebox, etc. If you look at all of those equivalents in real life you will find totally different designs. I see no reason why this can't be in a computer. The best design of all would be to make the computer totally transparent to the user, but that is a far way off.

    So.. do not bitch to me about how skins are the downfall of useability. It's just the fact that we're entering a period where computers are used by everyone, not just those of us willing to 'train.' Programs are still being programmed and designed by programmers, not UI experts and designers. Hell, the easiest way to remedy this is to make it as easy as possible for the aforementioned to change stuff about the app and move it around and.. hey! Isn't that what skinning is?

  • by streetlawyer ( 169828 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @03:04AM (#1142399) Homepage
    Yeh, I think you're onto something. At a recent meeting, I was a bit taken aback by a partner on the opposing side. We'd mentioned something offhand that we'd do this that and the other "if we can drag the phone number out of Lotus Notes", and he said that these days they just "stored all that shit in a text file and used grep".

    Apparently various versions of Unix (mainly the BSDs -- I don't think anyone who cares about data security is quite ready for free software yet) are the weapon of choice in go-ahead legal and corporate planning departments. The cluelessness of most VPs is greatly overexaggerated; half of them had PCs as status symbols in the old days, so they can use DOS (which works just like Unix), and they quite like the idea of a CLI. And the old Hewlett Packard Financial Analyst calculator is another example of how tech-savvy finance suits can be if it's something they care about rather than something dull and non-revenue generating like network adminisatration

    It's getting to the stage where Unix is reaching the corporate desktop -- I've seen a couple of job ads for secretaries and receptionists which state "must be able to use basic Unix commands". So I guess it's probably time for me to throw the good old Mac away and get with the winning side. I don't understand why all the techie elite types are keen to throw away their only unique selling point at all


  • by streetlawyer ( 169828 ) on Monday April 10, 2000 @03:16AM (#1142400) Homepage
    But all too often I'm called upon to provide some free :^) phone/on-site tech support to undo a change one of them has made

    Never do that. Just because they're your parents, doesn't mean they can get a free ride. Lawyers learn this early on in their training -- if you want your advice to be considered valuable, charge for it. Ask the most popular cheerleader in your high school -- once you've got a reputation for giving something away, it's difficult to charge for it in later life.

    Yeh, but it's your mom and dad, you say. You think you have a point, but you don't. First it's mom and dad. Then it's bro and sis. Then it's Aunty Murtle. Pretty soon you're getting woken up at four AM (after being out drinking martinis to three) in order to get down to some fucken city drunk tank to knock out a misdemeanour plea bargain, gratis, for your third cousin twice removed's stepchild from her third marriage. And it's always "Oh Johnny, could you do this just once? We're faaaammmilleeeee! Have you forgotten where you came from?" Yak yak yak. No, I haven't forgotten where I came from, it's just that now I don't have to fucken go back to that craphole in South Bklyn, I choose not to.

    The way I play it, is that I don't make my family sign a check. But if they want my professional services, they should be prepared to give me some of theirs. So I get my car washed, my plumbing done, my dinner cooked, and on occasion a little recreational fellatio (only from relatives no closer than first cousin, naturally -- I'm not a fucken pig).

    With more and more people having net connections, and all manner of what have you, it strikes me that technology types are going to be almost as much in demand as lawyers in the next few years. So I'd advise you guys to learn a few lessons from the legal profession. We learned the lesson from the teamsters -- Gas, Grass or Ass, nobody rides for free.

    --just call me streetlawyer, ma'am

Love may laugh at locksmiths, but he has a profound respect for money bags. -- Sidney Paternoster, "The Folly of the Wise"