GUIs, linking, and interface experimentation

In one crucial way, the rich GUI is tragically disadvantaged with respect to its poor browser cousin. Trying to sort out a permissions problem with IIS 6, I clicked a Help button and landed on a Web page. The page could only describe the tree-navigation procedure required to find the tabbed dialog box where I could address the problem. It could not link to that dialog box. This is nuts when you stop and think about it. Documentation of GUI software needs pages of screenshots and text to describe procedures that, on the Web, are encapsulated in links that can be published, bookmarked, and e-mailed. A GUI that doesn't embrace linking can never be truly rich. [InfoWorld: How rich is the rich GUI?: October 17, 2003]
Everybody agreed with the central theme of this column: the "rich" GUI ought to embrace linking. The secondary theme -- that the "rich" GUI ought to be richer on its own terms -- provoked a variety of responses. Danny Ayers worked up an interesting CSS/JavaScript variant of Samuel Wan's fisheye demo. Hamish Harvey's response:

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that the CSS provides a pretty effect, whereas the Flash version provides a genuinely different (though I'm not yet sure if it's useful) way to deal with long lists in short spaces. [MishMash]

Actually, I thought the CSS variant was cool, and could probably mimic the Flash technique more closely if needed. Like Hamish, I'm not sure this is a useful technique, but I mentioned it in the column just because it's striking how little UI innovation there is. Len Bullard wrote to second that observation:

To improve the GUI, we don't need more dancing tabs, we need richer integration metaphors. Can we get those without creating domain-focused, limitations? In other words, going from GUIs that anyone can use to GUIs that only specialists can use somewhat following the evolution path of domain languages? Is that progress?

Should we look more carefully at the intersections of 3D virtual characters and RPGs as means to find and present information, faces on the agents? Should we work harder at understanding the relationships among the sign systems that people use in daily life and the effects these have on human emotions?

Most of what we do with GUIs, trees, tabs, dropdowns, cascading menus and so on, is list process named items. A richer interface would be conversational and would organize itself dynamically according to its role.

Len asks great questions, and we won't be able to answer them until we do the experiments. Oddly, there doesn't seem to be much experimentation going on.

Update: J. Scott Anderson wrote to say:

I found it interesting that you mention the fisheye effect yet failed to mention the effect in active everyday use -- the Macintosh OS X Dock. In my opinion, there is a very successful implementation of such an effect.
Good point. I use OS X myself, and should have made that connection. Thanks!

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