My sign of a good graphical interface

November 23, 2008

Here is a thesis I have about really good graphical interfaces, especially in the context of text editors:

In a good graphical interface, you not only can use the mouse, you want to.

There are a good number of graphical interfaces that are ordinary and decent and good enough. They make effective use of the mouse and graphics, they're nice, and they by and large fail to fill me with any particular actual enthusiasm for those graphical features. They're just sort of there, in an ordinary and perfectly acceptable way.

(Perhaps this is the mark of a good interface in one sense, in that the interface more or less disappears as something that I think about; it's just there, doing things for me.)

This has been especially visible in text editors, because (unlike many other such GUI-based programs) we already have a lot of experience with primarily text-based editing. As a result, a lot of the graphical text editors that I've used have left me feeling unenthused about their graphical nature; things like multiple windows and pointing at things with the mouse were nice to have around, but in practice I didn't use them much.

(You can see this in other programs too; consider the enduring popularity of keyboard shortcuts. In a sense, every keyboard shortcut that gets used is a failure of the graphical interface, in that the graphical interface was unable to make the mouse the faster and better way of doing the same thing.)

But this isn't always the case. There have been a few GUI programs that have not just let me use the mouse, but which have left me actively wanting to do so (and not because the mouse was the only way to use them; that trick doesn't work when you have alternative programs available). Thus, this has become my mark of a really good graphical interface: it is sufficiently cleverly designed that I actively want to use the mouse, that it feels totally right, entirely natural, and clearly the fastest and best way to get done what I want to do.

Unfortunately, these are very uncommon, and as a result I suspect that most people have never used one.

Comments on this page:

From at 2008-11-24 07:18:48:

I know that I haven't used one. In fact, I seek out UIs that allow me to use the keyboard as much as possible. I judge a GUI by the extent to which it stays out of my way. KDE and Gnome are pretty low on that list, unless you modify the settings extensively. WindowMaker is my favorite, but I've heard good things about ratpoison.

Do you have any examples of good UIs which make you want to use your mouse? I'd like to experience them, just to see what it was like.

--Matt Simmons

By cks at 2008-11-25 17:38:08:

With the disclaimer that everyone's tastes are different: the two graphical text editing environments I have considered really good (in different ways) are Rob Pike's sam and acme (although I will admit that I use a slightly patched version of sam that adds acme-style chorded editing). Sam especially makes me love the mouse and what I can do with it.

(One of the things I think that helps sam a lot is that it understands that the mouse has limits and doesn't try to do everything with it, to the extent that it has a very powerful command environment too.)

Written on 23 November 2008.
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Last modified: Sun Nov 23 23:31:37 2008
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