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GUI metrics

One of the more interesting developments regarding GUIs in recent years were those that came out of Commodore's demise, like Genesi/MorphOS, Amiga, Inc. etc. Some of them seem to be doing rather well, others have sadly gone the way of the Dodo. So, I was happy to hear that AmigaOS is doing quite well.

So, happily reading along, I came upon the following objectionable remark in the article linked to above:

Apple users who marveled at OS X's ability to use huge, oversized icons will be interested to know that said feature actually originated in AmigaOS 1.2, circa 1985. It remains in AmigaOS to this day, allowing application vendors to create large, attractive icons that stand apart from the standard system ones.
Now, don't get me wrong: I fully agree that it's a painful fact that it took the Mac until 2001 to get an OS out the door that supported bigger icons than 32x32 pixels. What I object to, however, is apparent from the screen shot shown in the article, where you'll notice that there seems to be no fixed size for icons. One icon is a lot wider than the others.

My first thought was: God help me -- he really thinks that isn't a bug? If you look at GUIs that allow for arbitrary icon sizes, you'll likely notice that a window with several differently-sized icons tends to look very unprofessional, and rather haphazard.

I don't know whether it was technical necessity or sheer genius, but the developers of the Mac restricted sizes of things on their screen to certain multiples of 16, and even when Apple reworked window metrics for Aqua, most of these things stayed that way: Scroll bars are 16 pixels, the grow box is 16 by 16 pixels. Icons used to be 32x32, and are now 128x128.

So, why am I claiming inflexibility was a feature, while flexibility is to be a bug? It all comes down to consistency. Consistency is the bread and butter of GUI design. It's like in the real world: When you push down a door handle, you expect the door to unlatch. When you flick a light switch, you expect the light to change. When you walk through your house, you intuitively know whereabouts a certain lightswitch is in a room, even at what height. That's behavior we learned when we were kids, and we still expect it to be true today.

Graphical User Interfaces ideally try to work with what users have learned in the real world. Buttons look slightly raised and seem to "sink in" when "pushed". Objects adhere to some semblance of physicality, even though they're just electrons, and wouldn't really have to. Things usually don't just arbitrarily change shape like in some of our dreams. That makes them recognizable and reliable.

Who knows how to use a real-life button will quickly grow accustomed to thinking of a pushbutton on the screen in the same way. Eventually, we grow used to things looking a certain way, behaving in a certain way and being in a certain place. If you ever saw a Mac user work with Windows or a Windows users work with a Mac, the close box will be a case in point.

But I digress. We're used to certain locations, sizes and behaviors. And that's where we get back to icons. Not only is it prettier if you have several same-size objects in a row (as every first-year design student will be able to tell you), but it's also easier to navigate groups of same-size objects. If all objects are the same size, it's easier to get used to how hard you need to shove the mouse to move to the icon next to, or above, or whenceever the current one. After all, they're practicing these skills in all apps that they use on that computer, not just in yours.

So, to cut this long rant short: Stick to the default icon sizes. Adhering to your OS's metrics will make your app look more professional, and will make it more comfortable to use for your users. They won't notice consciously, but if your app 'just works', and the competitors app 'somehow feels awkward', the decision just might swing in your favor.

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Created: 2005-01-19 @644 Last change: 2005-01-20 @178 | Home | Admin | Edit
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