28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XVII

Don’t fight the operating system.

While they continue to offer more than just a starting point for our applications, such as customizable applets and desktop widgets, operating systems like Windows and Mac OS have developed fairly steady, systematic guidelines by which most programs happily abide. These systems include color-coded, iconic navigation tools and affordance-specific hints that, when used appropriately, allow for easier usability and less confusion.

For example, programs in the Windows environment generally follow a consistent color scheme. In Windows XP, for example, title bars are by default given a blue gradient (which I’ve replaced with solid blue), and inactive title bars are grayed out to show the user that the focus is on another application. As only one program may be in focus at any given time, this is the most obvious hint as to which application will respond to a user’s input.

Adobe Photoshop used to adhere to these standards. Here we see blue title bars showing that Photoshop is the current active application, and which of the three open documents is active within Photoshop. Also, the toolbar to the left shows where a user can click to move the toolbar, or double-click to hide it.

Here is Photoshop’s newest incarnation. Notice there are no blue bars to be found, and the difference between the active and inactive documents is much more difficult to notice at first glance. And switching to another application changes nothing in Photoshop’s title bar, which can lead to confusion for the user.

This new Adobe color scheme, found in most CS4 applications, seems to echo Windows Vista’s default settings, rounding corners around documents and losing the blue headers for a less saturated color scheme. And it could be argued that more neutral surroundings will allow images to be seen with less distraction, but going so far as to eliminate even the option to replace the familiar, ever helpful blue bars that help discern active from inactive elements only takes control away from the user.

Overriding the established scheme also takes an unnecessary toll on the processor. Moving documents around in Photoshop 7 is much smoother and faster than in CS4, and the new layout scheme–really just a Vista/Mac-inspired skin–doesn’t always do its job:

The top part of this image shows Windows XP’s default scheme, and in the middle is Photoshop CS4’s own layout. Quite often, especially after minimizing and restoring the application, Photoshop will forget to refresh its skin properly, allowing a bit of the original format to show through, resulting in a choppy overlapping mess, as shown in the bottom of the image. Because the two don’t have identical buttons size or placement, the user might not know exactly where to click. Fixing this will likely take a couple minutes of coding, and will probably be improved in the near future with an update, but if Adobe had stuck to the rules, they wouldn’t need to come up with workarounds for problems like this.

Another example of ignoring common operating system guidelines is when a program doesn’t place a corresponding button in the Windows taskbar–that horizontal strip along the bottom of the screen. I understand the desire to free up space on the taskbar, but some applications–such as Trillian, my chat program–will often get buried underneath others, or minimized when I want to see my desktop. Without offering a button along the taskbar, it makes locating the application a lot more difficult than if it had just stuck to the rules.

Operating systems don’t always make things easy, but one thing that human-computer interaction benefits greatly from is conformity. With certain exceptions–full-screen games, for one–developers and designers should work together to create experiences that work within these limitations, or at least give users the choice to set their own. For the most part, computer applications like Photoshop are tools we use to achieve a specific end; they aren’t expected to be an experience in themselves.


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