The Hitchhiker’s Guide to UI Design

Larry Osterman talked about Windows 7 user interface changes in a post today, and it generated a minor comment storm, in which I participated. He talked about some buttons that used to be obvious buttons in Windows Vista, but which were made “flat” in Windows 7 so that they’re no longer obviously buttons until the user hovers over them with a mouse.

I gave my opinion a couple of times, coming down on the side of non-flat buttons. The whole discussion, though, reminded me of a couple of passages from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy that describe the design of the ship The Heart of Gold.

The cabin was mostly white, oblong, and about the size of a smallish restaurant. In fact it wasn’t perfectly oblong: the two long walls were raked round in a slight parallel curve, and all the angles and corners of the cabin were contoured in excitingly chunky shapes. The truth of the matter is that it would have been a great deal simpler and more practical to build the cabin as an ordinary three-dimensional oblong room, but then the designers would have got miserable.

That sounds like everything I dislike about UI design these days, particularly in Flash and Silverlight apps where designers feel compelled to recreate UI widgets that behave almost, but not quite, entirely unlike standard widgets.

A loud clatter of gunk music flooded through the Heart of Gold cabin as Zaphod searched the sub-etha radio wave bands for news of himself. The machine was rather difficult to operate. For years radios had been operated by means of pressing buttons and turning dials; then as the technology became more sophisticated the controls were made touch-sensitive — you merely had to brush the panels with your fingers; now all you had to do was wave your hand in the general direction of the components and hope. It saved a lot of muscular expenditure, of course, but meant that you had to sit infuriatingly still if you wanted to keep listening to the same program.

That sounds a lot like where flat buttons are headed. In fact, it sounds strikingly like an iPod.

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