Improving user interface design through simple communication improvements and lessons learned repeatedly in computerdom. Bellis' Law: "For every computer problem, even many hardware problems, there is a simple solution to the user interface." More...

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The Best Dialog Ever? February 2002

One of our tenets is that the goal of usability is to reduce the need for training and documentation to zero. Aside from the sideways looks I get from developers and non-believers alike, there's the incontrovertable fact that users are mandating this tenet, irrespective of one's opinion on the matter. As Jacob Neilsen says, "Users don't read documentation."

The evolution of the user interface is on an unstoppable path. It started with the cryptic C:> prompt, which required reams of printed explanation... and ends with today's wizards, whether built into the free-form whiteness of a web page or a traditional Window dialog.


This month's B&A applauds a dialog that epitomizes the final step in the evolution of user interface design. As such, the "before" is only figurative, not literal. The before version can only be the command prompt. Perhaps Microsoft didn't invent it, but they have the best-known one, below. Get out your user guides, reference cards, reference manuals, and elbow grease... your gonna need 'em.


"And in this corner,"

  • requiring no supplemental documentation,
  • explaining everything right on the screen, even techniques that have no button or menu item,
  • stepping the user through a multi-step procedure...

is the Drag&Drop panel from the Export wizard in CoffeeCup Photo-Objects by Hemera Technologies (

If you were expecting perhaps more pizzazz or technology, you shouldn't be disappointed. Usable design isn't about techology or window dressing. It's about filling in the pieces that the software turns over to the user. Actually, the entire wizard is chock full of techology: other panels enable interactive editing with real-time feedback. And the simple presence of the wizard indicates that the full solution was coded, rather than leaving the techwriters to piece it together in an awkward procedure.

But the evolutionary magic here is that the documentation is in the interface! As far as delivering (communicating) functionality, interfaces will never get better than this. Instead, improvements will consist of automating MORE functionality... and that is not a matter of interface design, but of horsepower. The same could be said of embellisments <that's a typo, really> such as customizing the wizard or sensitizing it to the skill level of the user; against the backdrop of this dialog as "ultimate help," such embellishments, though potentially of great value, are simply "tuning" improvments.

Two objections are sometimes raised to such "rich" interface content:

  1. "It's too slow. "

    Response: you're mistaking learning for using. Wizards---I call them "step-through" dialogs---are for the learning phase. And if throughput of a few characters is a problem, as in a web applications, get creative and make it user-sensitive, or frequency sensitive.

  2. "We can't cater to the least informed, least skilled user."

    Response: if you can't, just wait. Your competitors will. Increasingly the software will be expected to do the training as well as the "production" work.

Congratulations and thanks to CoffeeCup. And for a great runner-up, check out the embedded help in Macromedia Fireworks. See it in their free trial download.

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