28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XVI

Screen edges and corners can drastically improve functionality.

Whenever I seem to lose track of my cursor–something that happens fairly often when using Photoshop, despite how much work Adobe has put into making the cursor stand out from the image behind it–I know I can swipe the mouse into a corner of the screen, where it will stay (unless I’ve got a dual-screen setup), and I’ll have my bearings once again. The corners of the screen give a little solace to those who lose sight of their cursors now and then, and provide a welcome alternative to shaking the mouse back and forth. If a parked cursor is hard to locate, a cursor wildly dashing left and right isn’t much more helpful.

Many elements of human-computer interaction also involve the edges and corners of a display. OSX’s application dock, the Windows Start button, and program-specific toolbars are often located along the edges of the display and nestled in the corners, making them easier to locate, and supposedly, easier to use.

The great thing about these locations is they demand very little attention from a user’s eyes, minimizing the delay in workflow and giving the user less to think about. In a typical setup, moving a mouse more than a couple inches in any direction will bring the cursor to the limit of the screen, no matter where it starts from.

There are cases, however, when a button is placed near an edge or corner, but doesn’t recognize a click unless it occurs a few pixels away from the outside of the screen. This still makes them easy enough to find, but miss out on a critical possibility to truly speed up the user’s actions.

This is the lower left corner of my screen. The Start button won’t activate unless my cursor is at least four pixels up from the bottom of the screen, or two pixels right from the left. Because of this, I can’t simply sweep my mouse down and left, and expect the Start menu to open when I click. I have to move away from the corner, but not so much as to pass the entire button. This takes a lot more of my attention than placing the hit area in the very corner.

Along the edge of the screen are my quick launch icons and buttons to recall all of my opened applications. As with the Start button, none of them are actually along the lower edge, but four pixels above it, taking considerably more effort to click on them.

Thankfully, Windows XP fixed this oversight, but being a fan of the original Start menu and organization, I always use Classic View, which doesn’t include that extra functionality. I have used systems with which Classic View does a better job or recognizing edge and corner clicks, but with all the different versions of Windows out there, and accounting for upgrades and service pack installations, I can’t recollect which versions behave in which way.

Many applications, such as Photoshop, override Windows blue title bar feature (something I’m not too happy about, but I’ll discuss that next) and place their toolbars and other interface components along the top edge of the screen. Again, these items aren’t actually placed against the very edge, but rather seven pixels lower.

This image shows all four corners of the screen using Adobe Lightroom with Windows XP’s standard Start menu. As with Photoshop’s toolbars, none of these are accessible from the very edge, nor are the program menu in the upper left or resize buttons in the upper right. It should be noted that Windows XP’s standard resize buttons, generally applied to all programs, do react to the very edge and corners.

Here, the Start menu and program bar buttons all accept edge and corner clicks, but in the lower right corner, the icons in the system tray and the clock all require the mouse to move away from the edges to work.

Mac OSX takes the idea of screen corners to a fuller extent, launching applications, organizational tools and screen savers when the user stows the cursor in a corner for a second. Many laptop touchpads and PDA screens utilize corners for user-defined applications and options. These make launching common programs much faster and require less interruption to a user’s thought process, adding to the experience, while those just a few pixels off slowly chip away at it.

Until everyone has a touch-enabled screen on their desk, the edges and corners of the screen are the closet thing to tactile response a monitor can provide, as users can safely assume the limitations of the screen will catch the cursor and hold it there for them. Placing buttons along the edges and in corners, rather than just short of each, will make this understanding work in the users’ favor.

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