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Moving forward with Composr

ocPortal has been relaunched as Composr CMS, which is now in beta. ocPortal 9 will be superseded by Composr 10.

Head over to for our new site, and to our migration roadmap. Existing ocPortal member accounts have been mirrored.

Why user interface consistency is important

Why user interface consistency is important Maintaining user interface consistency in ocPortal is something we put a lot of thought into, as it's one of our highest priorities. A consistant user interface can do a lot of things:
  • it looks good
  • it's easier to learn
  • it's easy to modify
  • it's less bug prone (because there's less code)
  • it's quicker to code for (because less code needs to be written)
It's not always easy to do though, because you have to think very carefully about how to make it so screens don't look like they are made by lumped together components.

This little introduction is to set the context for one of my pet peeves - making 'skinned' Windows programs. In my view, skinning a desktop program to have a unique looking interface is wholely bad - to consider computer programs as a canvas for pure artistic freedom is to totally ignore the usability issues that come from the fact that they are interactive.

Here's a little screenshot from my desktop today…

I wanted to send off iTunes to my system tray to free up some space on the taskbar. Now unfortunately for some reason iTunes opened up just beneath the title/menu bars for Firefox, and with the iTunes skinned interface, it actually ended up just like Windows Media Player - with the iTunes menu title looking like a menu bar for a window within iTunes and the Firefox bar looking like the main iTunes bar. Of course if I looked to the top left I'd see it was Firefox, but I wasn't naturally looking there because I was wanting to get rid of the window, and you do that in the top-right.

So I ended up closing firefox by mistake. I quickly realised what I'd done, so I next closed off iTunes. However, then iTunes just closed completely, stopping playing. This second inconsistency due to the fact that I expected the iTunes close button to make it revert to the system tray (the place with those little icons in the bottom right of the desktop). I expected that because there was an iTunes icon down in the tray suggesting that iTunes would be residual and the window I was closing was just a frontend that I could get back from that system tray icon.

So to summarise, two user interface consistencies confused me:
  • lack of conforming to the system-tray/window-close convention
  • overriding the Windows look, and even worse, making it appear like the Windows 'sub-window' look by making all the windowing buttons small
Now, considering I have been using and programming computers for 16 years now, I think it's fair to assume that others would get more confused than I did. The ironic thing about all this is Apple are considered top of the game when it comes to writing user interfaces.

Microsoft have some blame to - I consider the Windows Media Player interfaces one of the worst ever constructed. I'm not too keen on the new Internet Explorer 7 interface either, where now icons are getting used to activate drop down menus, and the traditional drop down menus are gone. This is again inconsistant, as icons on window bars traditionally activate a function rather than drop a menu. In order to learn IE7 I will need to unlearn Microsoft's own user interface conventions, but it's more than that, because the actual interface is internally inconsistant - some of the icons drop the menus and some of them activate functions. People can no longer pick up user interfaces naturally.

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