17 January 2009

Glossy Finishes and Translation of Design

Jeff Atwood recently posted about the importance of pearls on a pig.

As you may guess, Jeff and I disagree. In my opinion, the "new" Windows 7 (beta) calculator has not had a UI redesign. It's just been themed so it matches the new Windows look.

If they actually did a UI redesign, then it should result in a BETTER INTERFACE. Why would you ever change your interface if you are not going to improve it?

Let's look at the "new" interface: All of the buttons are the same size. The primary input buttons (numbers) are white, except for some strange blank key next to Mod. (Anyone know what that's for?) In order to maintain the layout of the standard calculator and keep the equals on the bottom right, the operators are split on either side of the numbers, instead of being grouped. The hex-exclusive numbers (A-F) are not obviously greyed out in Decimal mode. (They look the same as the decimal button, which shouldn't be disabled at this point.)

Of course, this is still beta software at this point and things may be improved. Also, I'm not using the calculator. My impressions are based on screenshots. Lifehacker reports that Microsoft has added some nice functionality to the calculator, but what if they took a different approach to design?

How about having a keyboard-focused mode? When I use a calculator, I rarely use they mouse, but I never remember keyboard shortcuts for square root, memory, toggle negative, or several other complex functions (do they exist?). Having those easily accessible would be far more useful. Have an user-friendly way to store multiple numbers.

But instead, the new Calc just looks prettier. Garbage! I love pretty, but pretty without function is a waste of time.

That said, I haven't used a really good calculator app. I often just open a python interpreter because at least then I can store several variables and I get a better computation history.

Calc looks like a real calculator. Because we lose the tactile input, it's harder to use and (for me) even a simple command prompt is easier to use. Replicating the design of real-world objects has some utility in software design, but there are many cases where it is misguided. How many people remember where all the keys are on a (real) calculator? If they were laid out differently (but still sensibly), would it be that much harder to use? No. While your muscle memory would be impaired, it doesn't make that big of a difference. And since computer software throws all of that muscle memory out the window, it doesn't matter.

So if you're designing your app to look like a real-world object, think again. And read the Design of Everyday Things.

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