Hard Case: User Interface Overload


I’ve been using the Microsoft Office 2010 beta for a few weeks now, and I’ve got a few comments about the user interface. But before I tackle that, I want to talk about card games. Stay with me, this is related to user interfaces.

Let’s take a look at two card games. Both these are from Rio Grande Games, and both are excellent in their own way.

Dominion is a card game where the object is to build a large deck of cards, gathering victory point cards along the way. The rules are very simple, and can be boiled down to: play one action, buy one item, discard, then draw five cards. There are nuances, of course, but that’s pretty much the basic rule set. The real rules, of course, are on the cards themselves.

Sample cards from Dominion

If you look at the Festival (action) card, you can see that it modifies the basic rules by allowing you to play additional actions, buy more stuff, and gives you more money to buy more stuff. What the Festival card does is overload your abilities for a turn.

Now let’s look at another card game: Race for the Galaxy.

Sample cards from Race for the Galaxy.

Wow, those cards look complicated. We’ve got these Roman numerals running down the left side. There are circles and symbols at the top, some of which are color coded. And there are even weirder symbols attached to some of the Roman numerals. The density of information is pretty high, and you need a legend (which each player has) to understand all the symbols.

In Race for the Galaxy, you’re not building a deck, but you are building a galactic empire – i.e., twelve or more cards placed in front of you to score victory points. So its goal is not that different from Dominion.

Note that these are only one type of card, the planet. Planets are identified by having a circle in the upper left. There are several other types of cards, which we don’t need to go into for our discussion. Even here, we have the military planet (red circle), the windfall planet (colored halo surrounding the circle, the resource planet (solid color) and the planet that doesn’t generate any resources (solid gray), but does have other abilities. Oh, and the colored text means something, too.

The planet Race for the Galaxy cards, in other words, represent a heavily overloaded user interface. (Note that I'm not using the word “overloaded” in the way a programmer would, when she talks about overloaded operators. I’m just referring more to density of information.)

It’s not really fair to compare the two games – they play differently, neither really take more than 30-45 minute to play and they’re both great fun. But guess which game is easier to teach to a new player.

Now let’s take a look at the UI from two Office 2010 apps: Outlook and Excel. First, let’s look at Excel’s ribbon.

The Excel 2010 Ribbon

At first blush, this looks complicated, as the cards did for Race for the Galaxy. But it’s actually pretty straightforward. Most of the stuff I would want to do in Excel is on the home tab – basic edit functions, autosum, cell filling, searches, basic formatting. That actually seems pretty straightforward. What’s obtuse to me are the color coded boxes labeled “normal”, “bad”, etc. That might make more sense for a heavy Excel user, but I use the app mostly for collecting benchmark data and generating charts for benchmarks.

Now let’s look at Outlook 2010.

The Outlook 2010 Ribbon

Ah, now I’m more comfortable. I’m a heavy Outlook user, and most of the stuff I’d want for Outlook is right here. Since I’m a freelance writer and, technically have no manager, I don’t need the team-related stuff. But the rest of it is pretty useful. (Well, I’m also nota OneNote user, either.)

What’s annoying to me is that the send/receive has now been moved to its own tab, with a host of small functions that have no use for me. I really liked having send/receive as a single button on the home tab in Outlook 2007. Still, Outlook 2010’s ribbon serves me well.

What I’m driving at is the whole “one UI to rule them all” approach that Microsoft seems to be taking with the Office ribbon. Yes, if you jump through hoops, you can do some customization, but most users are unlikely to dig deep enough to find that. What I’d like to see are templates for UIs from Microsoft, allowing users to easily pick and choose between different UI layouts.

If I want a very simple interface – call it “Dominion Excel”, for basic users, then let’s have a ribbon tailored for that. If I’m god among men with Excel, give me the herculean ribbon. Better yet, make the ribbon adaptable over time. If you constantly have to click another tab to get to a single function, ask the user if they want it on the home tab.

Then again, maybe that would be too confusing.

Bear in mind that I generally like the ribbon, and adapted to it pretty quickly in Office 2007. But every user is different, and somehow allowing easy tailoring by the user, I think, would be a good thing. If that’s too complicated, then having a few different layouts that users could choose from at setup time would be very cool. But be sure that users can also swap in a different layout as their needs change. And don’t forget the fixed, never-removable button (or menu choice) that forces a return to default layout, just in case.

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