Usability of desktop apps, or why file menus are not needed
August 25, 2007 6 Comments
Usability of desktop applications has been a concern for me for quite a long time. I’ve been thinking about it lately and came to some conclusions that I’d like to share. I have the feeling that modern desktops are mostly stuck in a dead end with usability, and M$ takes credit for most of it.
I’d like to explain one aspect of usability with an example, that is creating, editing and handling a text document. I’d like to start with how this is usually done on all desktops I know (Windows, KDE and GNOME) (sorry if I include details that seem obvious to anybody but the completely computer illiterate, I have my reasons):
- Start the text application (for example OpenOffice Writer). That includes knowledge of the existence of such an application and that this app is needed to edit texts, navigating something like a start menu to find the application.
- The application comes up with an ‘unnamed file’ and an empty edit area.
- You start to write something. At some point you need to save it (hmm. this includes you have to know that there are two states of your data, the copy in RAM and the copy on your harddisk.) So you navigate the thing that is called ‘file menu’ and choose the save option (urgs, there’s also ‘save as’). Now you’re presented with a dialog that is similar but not exactly the file manager you know from the desktop and are prompted to enter a filename, because so far the file has been ‘unnamed’.
- At some point you’re done and want to close the application. Navigate file menu to the exit menu entry (what’s this to do in the file menu anyway?). You’re prompted with the question if you want to save the file etc blah blah.
In an ideal word, the above steps are full of usability problems. At least from my point of view, things would be much more intuitive the following way (if people weren’t so much used to the above way that is):
- Navigate from the desktop to a folder where you want to create the file (maybe including creating new folders on the way).
- Choose option ‘New File’ in the file manager. This will ask you which type of file you want to create. You select ‘Text File’ from a list and enter a file name.
- The file is opened and you find yourself in an empty editor area. Note that there’s no need to distinct between the file you have open and the application that actually does all this. This is a detail that the user should not need to know about. The user should care about his files, not about applications.
- Edit away with the file. Actually, there’s no need to save the file, because the data in RAM is kept in sync with the data on the HD quite cleverly. And of course, the undo buffer is saved along with the actual file.
- If you’re done, choose the standard close option for each window (like the small cross in the upper right corner). The ‘application’ has no need to ask questions at this point because all the data is already in sync with the HD, see point #4.
Now, if you think this further, you will find that many concepts in the so called modern desktops are actually not needed and only hinder usability and simplicity of the desktop. There’s no need to have a start menu, there’s no need to have a distinction of (data) files and the application that are used to edit them, there’s no need for a file menu, etc etc.
So why was all this invented in the first place? Most of these concepts date back to the good (ok, they were actually pretty bad) DOS days, when there was no such thing like a graphical desktop, but applications like MS Word were already good enough to have menus and mouse support. At that time it made sense to have a distinction between apps and data files (because there was no file manager), it made sense to have a file menu (because there was no file manager and the computers at that time didn’t have enough resources to keep RAM data and HD data in sync in a useful way). That was actually pretty sophisticated at that time.
So, why do modern desktops still stick to these old concepts, which actually seem to be in the way of reasonable usability? Well, the answer is simple. One big rule in usability engineering is to take care of the user’s expectations and habits. People got used to these concepts so much that at one point it actually became impossible to change these concepts. I mean, imagine a desktop without a start menu, without the concept of applications even. Imagine applications without file menu, etc. Kindof hard, right? If M$ decided today to revamp Windows in such a radical way, they would probably loose millions of users. The same is true for KDE and GNOME. Remember the big debate about the spatial nautilus? A pretty radical change in a good direction, not perfectly implemented maybe (it’s much better now, because users can change it to their needs). But it certainly turned away many ‘power’ users (which infact only had pretty strong habits and didn’t want to let loose). This is why we will most likely see file menus in 10 or 20 years still, although they are not strictly necessary.