Thursday, January 2, 2003

Crufty UI

Erik Barzeski has some sensible reactions to Matthew Thomas’s article. I think there’s a deeper UI principle here, almost a quality without a name. It’s about presenting the right abstraction to the user. Of course the computer should prevent you from losing unsaved work, but the real point of manually saving documents is to give meaningful names (and locations) to user-specified states of the document. Until the computer can read my mind, it had better not try to be too clever. If its “perfect” high-level abstraction won’t let me do what I want, it should let me drop down a level. In an application’s case, this may mean not hiding (or obfuscating) the file system. This is my main complaint with applications like iPhoto, VOODOO, and Frontier. They think they’re making things easier, but they really just get in the way if you ever have to do anything outside their little universe. The situation with quitting is similar. Unless there’s a reason I’d never want to quit, the application had better let me. The current Mac OS X virtual memory system is not such a reason. I still quit applications that I’m not actively using. Part of this is to free up space in the Dock, granted. But it’s often true that switching to a swapped-out application is slower than launching that same application. Also, some applications save data and perform cleanup tasks when they quit, and it’s good to let them do that to make sure all their data are in a consistent state. With a perfect system, this wouldn’t matter, but Mac OS X isn’t perfect. A few days ago it froze on me while I was in iChat, and I couldn’t even ssh in. Don’t let the “modern” OS underpinnings make you lazy; you still have to think about when and where to save.

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