Habits and standards

Submitted by mimec on 2012-12-16

Yesterday was the seventh anniversary of mimec.org, but I will not elaborate on that. It suffices to say that the last year was very different from the previous ones. My son Adam changed from a blurry ultrasonographic image to a little boy who runs around the house. There is no time for anything. I can hardly keep up with my paid job, not to mention the open source projects, but I still managed to make four minor releases of WebIssues, an one release of Saladin (with another one pending), Fraqtive and Descend.

A few days ago I finally got a new laptop. It has a 15" Full HD display, which for some reason is very rare these days, powerful CPU and GPU and plenty of RAM. Minecraft runs at about 50 FPS at full screen with far viewing distance :). The bad news, though, is that my company run out of Windows 7 licenses, and I was forced to install Windows 8. I'm not going to rant about it, becuse enough has been said about it already. After installing the English language pack and removing the metro-garbage from the start menu, I'm getting used to it without having to change my habits too much. It's just hilarious that the now so called "desktop" applications suddenly became legacy and are only temporarily supported for backward compatibility. It reminds me of how all existing applications suddenly became "unmanaged" when .NET was created, as if they were crippled in some way. Microsoft suggested that in a few years all applications would become "managed", and finally support for those "unmanaged" ones would be dropped. Of course I don't mind .NET; it's just the kind of marketing speech that makes me laugh.

But when I saw Office 2013 with the black and white UI and icons designed for displays that support only 8 colors, it actually made me a bit upset. For a long time Office was setting the user interface design standards for a lot of Windows applications, especially regarding toolbars and menus, because the default ones always had a very plain look. Obiously I also always tried to keep up with the trends. Over ten years ago, in Grape3D, I used third party menu and toolbar classes for MFC which mimicked the flat, semi-transparent highlighting style know from Office XP. Later I wrote my own set of classes which broke out of the Office trends for a while and looked more like IE 6. But soon after that Microsoft released Office 2003 with the spectacular bright blue and orange UI which automatically changed its colors to match the Windows XP theme. Whether it looked good or not, it became a long time standard. Just take a look at version 0.9 of the WebIssues Client, or the so called "modern" Qt style which I wrote in 2008, and you will know what I mean.

The so called "ribbon" introduced in Office 2007 was something that people complained and ranted about nearly as much as the Metro UI in Windows 8, but it eventually turned out to be a very good idea. It was not just a cosmetic change, but something entirely new. Currently all my programs use a similar concept, which is available as part of the XmlUi component. At the same time the bright colors were toned down and the whole thing looked equally good with classic Windows style as with Luna and Aero. But now that I'm getting more and more used to Windows 8 and Office 2013, even the soft gradients and slightly rounded corners of XmlUi are beginning to look a bit odd. So what is the next logical step? Should we, developers, all turn to creating rectangular, black and white UI? How soon will Microsoft change its mind and what will be the next "standard"? Or perhaps it's time to stop bothering?


The ribbon is potentially a good thing in some applications, but it doesn't work well everywhere.

In the case of fraqtive, the ribbon is a bad idea, because it uses a great deal more vertical space than the traditional 'file edit view etc' menu did in the previous versions.

Now you might suggest using the fullscreen view as a solution. This isn't a good solution because it introduces more problems:
* after switching to/from the fullscreen view, some of the display will need to be redrawn, which is nontrivial if you're using an older computer and if you're zoomed in very far, or both
* switching between fullscreen view is a disorienting hassle
* there are no controls visible in fullscreen mode, so if you do actually need to use them at some point, you need to switch to/from fullscreen, and spend more time waiting for re-draw

The older version with traditional menu much less vertical space while still making the controls/options reasonably accessible.

I guess you probably implemented the ribbon in fraqtive quite a long time ago, so you'll probably wonder why you're hearing about it only now. I recently updated my Debian system from oldstable and reinstalled fraqtive today and got a later version with the ribbon.
Fraqtive is (I assume) your personal project and you might not be interested in what I think, but I'm telling you anyway.



I am always interested in what people think about my projects, especially when it comes to such subjective area as UI design, where understanding multiple points of view is important. I agree that the ribbon takes more space than the old UI, and it reduces the space available for the main view, especially on lower screen resolutions, and it may not be the best solution for this kind of application.

At the moment I am working on a new UI design for another project, Saladin, with a friend who is a much more experienced UI designer than I am. We already decided to change the ribbon and make it slightly more compact than the current version. In Fraqtive we could take a step further and switch back to a simple toolbar or even add an option to switch the ribbon between the large mode and a compact mode. We'll definitely think about it.