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Harmonious Desktop Residence

Posted on Sunday, March 1st, 2009 under Design | 2 comments

Harmonious Desktop Residence

The Background

During a recent lecture in my Deployment of Flash Projects class, while discussing Adobe AIR and trying to summarize the essential parts of desktop User Interface design, I found myself lacking in a over-arching term and general category to which I could attach many of the nit-picky and minute ideas that collectively make for superb deployments (or at the very least, improve poor deployments to acceptable).

I mean, there was definitely plenty of discussion about the importance of sticking with expected design patterns (you HAVE read Tidwell’s Designing Interfaces book, right?) as well as reviewing some of the great concepts presented in James Hobart’s older Principles of Good GUI Design article, like:

  • Too Many Features too soon
  • Designing for Consistency
  • Designing for Clarity
  • Remembering the User
  • Etc.

But one of the crucial aspects that I think many designers aiming at the Desktop miss, is the ability for their deployment to successfully live within the User’s operating system and among the rest of the applications the User is already using/familiar with. Frankly, it is just far too easy for experienced and novice users alike to spot (and quickly dismiss) applications that do not feel “native” to the system.

The Concept

Just as the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so the solution for this problem isn't going to be found in easy changes we, as designers, make to the cooking methods of our development cycle. Instead, it will only be with each ladled spoonful of user-delivered application goodness that will we be able to test and refine how we design for the Desktop.

If you didn't already know, Apple has been working hard at perfecting their recipe for UI deliciousness with a little something they like to call their Human Interface Guidelines and while I am at no where near that level of articulation in my thoughts on this matter, it isn't a bad goal to strife for. Really, my hope with this article is to spur some awareness among web designers looking at the future of Desktop development and (if I'm lucky) maybe even begin some conversation towards defining this concept that I've been lovingly referring to as "Harmonious Desktop Residence".

The Problem

The way I see it, while this problem does relate to overall design aesthetics and user-interface principles, it is very much hinged on delicate functional and visual intricacies that are simply being overlooked by designers and developers. Coming from the single-experience at-a-time world that is the Web, we are all just so accustomed to doing our own thing ... a habit that doesn't carry over when ours is just one of possibly 10-15 applications sitting in the user's Dock at any given time.

Even though he was talking about icon design at the time, I think Sean Hodge encapsulated this problem very well in his introduction for an article on the PSD Tutorial site:

Approach Icon Design Holistically
"Icons fit within graphic systems. Whether they are designed for desktop applications or Web sites, an icon is one of many graphic elements that need to work together harmoniously. Carry this logic across icon sets as well. Icons can be appreciated for their aesthetic solutions individually, but they don't function alone. Evaluate your icon designs relative to the graphic system you're using them in. Make sure that each icon differs from surrounding icons, while still working together as a whole." - Sean Hodge

Just to name a few, here are some specific issues currently plaguing so many of the current AIR and Mac OS X Dashboard deployments:

  • The angle to and amount of drop shadow used by the application's main element
  • The color, shape and style by which tooltips are handled
  • The opacity/beveling, if any, that is used on button roll-over indications
  • The default and/or User customizable screen startup location for the application

I could go on, but hopefully, you are beginning to see my point. None of these elements are major issues in themselves and none result in broken deployments ... but each one detracts, breaks the illusion, and further adds to the tumbling snowball of inconsistencies that is slowly culminating to our user audience's distaste for non-OS branded/developed applications.

In essence, when developing for the Desktop, our job as designers is to be a good neighbor to those other applications, widgets and what-not around us. Currently, we're all sitting Homer Simpson-style in front of our house, half-naked in a kiddie pool, drinking beer and refusing to mow the lawn. Something has to change.

The Solution

Like I hinted at earlier, there unfortunately isn't any one step or five principle-based solution that is going to put us in the right with our users. It's instead going to take some grit and gumption put into building our own list of guidelines to follow and then once there, clinging to them like one of those sticky finger hands ... before they got all dirty, of course.

They are brief, but here are some of my initial ideas to get us started:

  • Don't be the gorilla on the block! - Size matters, so scale it down to something reasonable
  • The first one out is always the first one wet! - Whether it's color, texture, gradients or drop shadows, your app shouldn't stand out like sour thumb
  • Let them eat cake! - Give the Users what they want/expect, whether it is keyboard controls, mouse scrolling, interaction feedback, etc.
  • Don't swap the salt and sugar on a blind man! - User are already familiar with certain icons and idioms. Don't bother to reinvent the wheel and definitely don't go breaking those.

Alright, gang. That's your start. Any thoughts?

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Got somethin' to say? This is the place ... just try to play nice.

Very cool article Oscar. I couldn't agree more, but I do think there is something to be said about taking educated risks and making your app stand out, in a good way, on purpose. :D


Comment on Tuesday, June 14th, 2011 by Serg

I definitely agree. Sometimes it's okay to break the rules, as long as you know what they are. ;)


Comment on Tuesday, June 14th, 2011 by Oscar

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