Saturday, February 28, 2009

GUI Design and click-distance

I am not a GUI designer by trade, but I have done some GUI design both of web applications and normal GUIs. And I'd like to both rant a little and describe some of my GUI design thoughts.

First I think that we can all agree that many GUIs are poorly designed and therefore frustrating to use. And a lot has been written about how to clearly lay out information on the page, etc. A good layout is alway good, but especially for new users to the system. But what about the other 99% of the time the user uses the system? Once the user understands your GUI, how long it takes to physically move the mouse across the screen to use each widget required to get the job done becomes the determining factor as to whether your GUI is useable or not.

A lot less (if anything -- I can't find anything but I certainly haven't done a lit review on this!) has been written this -- about the kinematics of web design.

Wikipedia defines kinematics as studying motion without considering the circumstances leading to that motion. That is very similar to what I want to talk about -- which is the motion of the user's hands as he moves the mouse, moves from the mouse to the keyboard and so on. It doesn't really matter what the purpose of this motion is, other than to observe that good GUI design should attempt to minimize or eliminate the motion for common tasks.

Let me suggest a new metric called "click-distance". The purpose of click-distance is to create a quantitive measurement of how "far" the user has to move from his current GUI-state to get to his desired GUI state. So the metric will contain a lot more components then just clicking and moving the mouse, but I think that the term "click-distance" implies a good first order approximation.

One think that I don't like about the term is that perhaps even more important as "click-distance" is "click-time". That is, how long did it take to traverse the click-distance? But I think that "click-time" itself is not as important as "click-frustration" or how PISSED the user gets because he has to do something like individually select 500 files in 500 upload file dialog boxes instead of shift-clicking them all at once. But the further we go down this path, the less measurable the metric becomes.

Clearly by recording the sequence of input the user makes, we can infer something about the distance the user's hands travelled given a particular physical setup (desktop, laptop, or PDA/phone). And don't forget about left-handed people!

Click-distance should capture the following concepts.

Literal distance metrics:

1. Total distance the mouse cursor moved. Obvious!
2. Number of mouse-repositions. A person can move halfway across the screen in almost the time it takes to move just a little way. From experimenting on myself, it seems to take around a second for each individual mouse motion.
3. Number of uninterrupted mouse direction changes. A person generally moves the mouse in a straight line from its current position to the desired destination. If the mouse moves back and forth or around and around, that implies difficulty positioning -- that is, the GUI element is too small. From your high school calculus we know that the direction is changing along a particular axis when the velocity is zero...

Button press metrics:

4. Number of clicks and keys pressed.
5. Number of alternations between mouse press and key press. This metric is a rough estimate of how many times the user had to move his hand from the mouse to the keyboard, and is therefore a major contribution to click distance
6. ctrl-alt-shift-click Combinations.

Hard to measure metrics:

6. How often a certain sequence is repeated. Repetition is a huge source of user frustration (and is the source of carpel-tunnel syndrome) but conveniently is often the easiest to remove through a bit of GUI redesign. I think that it is so important that click-distance should be the square of the repetition, but only proportional to the rest of the metrics. However, it is difficult to programatically identify repetitive movements...

To make a quantitive formula, each of the terms described above should be multiplied by a constant adjustment factor that reflects the distance the hand must move. These constants might differ based on the physical layout being considered:

click-distance = A*mouseDist + B*mouseRepos + C*mouseVelZero + D*presses + E*mouseKeyAlternations + F*keyClickCombinations + (G*repetitions)^2

The idea is of course to mininize this click-distance for common tasks. Of course, you wouldn't really have to DO this math, just start thinking about your GUI in terms of how long it takes to do an operation and you'll be well along the path to good, useable design.

Here are some practical ideas that have emerged from my consideration of click-distance in GUI designs:

1. No modal dialog boxes!
They force the user to move the hand to the mouse, reposition, and click. For all "alerts", "errors", etc, use a "message bar" (preferably NOT hidden on the bottom of the screen) and graphics (like red text and animation) to draw attention.

They also position themselves "creatively" -- aka NOT where your mouse is!

Using a modal dialog box makes it hard to see the information behind it.

Does not scale: doing 200 operations that contain a modal dialog requires 200 reposition-click-reposition operations.

The only time a modal dialog should be used is in TRUELY irrevocable operations. Like formatting your hard drive.

Of course, the corrolary to this is that your program should not HAVE any truely irrevocable operations.

2. Keep it all in one window.
Use tabs, etc. They much shorter in mouse distance to switch between than windows that have to be sized and positioned.

3. Design with REAL data, not your unit-test toys.
You really ought to try the GUI with real-world examples, that contain lots of data. Doing so is the best way to discover repetition.

4. Allow multi-select absolutely whenever possible.
Creatively apply what this might mean in cases where you are not sure... implementing one of 3 possibilities at least fixed 1/3 of the problem...

5. Keep values populated in fields, and don't force a history selection from the selection box.

This will dramatically reduce click-distance for unanticipated repetitive tasks. Look, this is about click-frustration. If a person is entering 1000 people's addresses over the whole USA, it is not so bad to type the city and state. But if the person is the tax accountant for a particular town and so the city and state is almost always the same it can be very tiresome.

Its best to have an easy way to delete the field in one go like most boxes have. Or even better try a tiny "pin value" icon button near the field. If the "pin value" button is depressed, the last value entered is remembered for the next time.

6. Selection boxes suck!
Clearly the problem is that the user was probably typing, so now he must move from the keyboard to the mouse. Click to open the selection, all kinds of tricky clicking (especially since the selection box sometimes closes itself if the mouse wanders too far) to scroll down, and finally click to select. It is major mouse distance.

Here's one example that would save millions of people 10 seconds per day and massively reduce office rage:

Its much harder to find "New York" in a list of states 52 states then to just type "NY"!

Especially when some of you only show us 3 states at a time!

7. For the prime function, click distance should be <= 1.

Word processors allow you to add lots of letters to a document with 1 keypress per letter. They are not so good at saving 10 different copies of the document. You have to pop up 10 modal dialog boxes. File managers let you copy 100 documents to 10 different places with a mouse distance of about 20 (1 selection operation + 10*(mouse position + key:ctrl-v)). And so on...

Ok. I think that's enough examples. There are lots more. As you think of examples, please add them as comments!

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