Archive for October, 2008

Icons and labels

I was reading Ars Technica’s first look at Windows 7’s UI and one thing in particular stood out for me, the fact that text descriptions for buttons on the taskbar will be going away.

windows 7 taskbar

Text descriptions on the buttons are gone, in favor of big icons.

There are still text descriptions, but they appear over thumbnails that show up when you mouse over one of the taskbar icons.

windows 7 taskbar thumbnails

There’s a big dependence on iconography here. There was a very small bit of this in Vista, as the Start button was replaced with the Windows logo, but these changes are a much greater shift towards favoring icons over icons+text in the UI. Unfortunately, a potential issue I see here is that unless a user recognizes an application’s icon instantly, they’re now forced to mouse over all the taskbar icons unknown to them in order to find the app or window they’re looking for. This may, however, be a non-issue as the taskbar may typically just be filled with application icons familiar to the user, so cases of scanning over unknown icons in the taskbar will be rare. Whether this is a success or not remains to be seen, but the reason this caught my attention was because of something I read a long time ago on the importance of labels, written by a program manager on the MS Office User Experience team,

One of the problems noticed again and again among non-expert users was that people didn’t use the toolbar at all! … people used the menus to reply, forward, and to create new messages.

… one change caused a total turnaround: labeling the important toolbar buttons. Almost immediately, the toolbars were a big hit and everyone at all skill levels starting using them.

It’s not that icons can’t work by themselves, but that most people have a fairly limited vocabulary. Floppy disk = save. Printer = print. …

… considering that I already know how to speak English; it’s a lot of work to learn how to speak “Iconese” on top of that.

What’s particularly interesting is that the icons being talked about aren’t particularly exotic (reply, forward, send, etc. in Outlook), and toolbar icons are perhaps as common as taskbar icons.

Finally, developers will understand this, what happens if you have 2 applications with the same icon? I don’t expect this to be a major concern, but still, I have a bunch of apps I’ve written with just the default application icon, these changes to the taskbar will certainly make switching between them more difficult.


I came across this post today about the mess that is application installation on the modern operating system and why going back to the installation procedures (or lack thereof) of old systems are favorable.

While it’s useful to perform some kind of unpacking or decompression step as part of app setup (unzip), the idea of scattering application files into all sorts of mysterious places just makes things harder for everyone, developers and users included.

The nice thing about “non-installing” is that your entire app is in one place — pretty much just a copy of the distribution itself sitting right there. And, wouldn’t that be handy in itself, both in terms of backup and also for ease of app removal?

I couldn’t agree more and wrote something in a similar vein a while back (see here).

Why Google won

I firmly believe that Google rose and dominated the search engine market not necessarily because it provided better search results, but because it was the search engine that provided the simplest, cleanest, and most accessible user interface. I bring this up because I caught this image on reddit (my new addiction) the other day. Here’s a cropped piece of the image,

google vs. yahoo

Oddly enough, while many search engines have now adopted a Google-esque simplicity to their interfaces (Live Search, AltaVista,, etc.), Yahoo seems to have taken the opposite approach, saturating their homepage with more content – news, top searches, weather, links to other Yahoo services, and a sickening amount of ads. I highly doubt this “everything and the kitchen sink” strategy will put Yahoo back on top.

The Milky Way… from a cave in the Utah desert

The spiral galaxy, which cannot be seen with the naked eye, was captured by photographer Wally Pacholka using a 35mm camera and 50mm lens on a tripod with a 30-second exposure – long enough to collect the light but not to see the stars moving.

milky way

Link to article

Windows Cloud

A few days ago I came across Microsoft’s announcement (or pre-announcement, as the launch is actually in 4 weeks) of Windows Cloud – an “operating system” for the “cloud.” (Note: there are certain things Ballmer says which seem vague or just don’t seem to make technical sense; I’m not sure what Ballmer means by .NET model or “operating system” in the given context. My overall assumption is that this is software for distributed computing of a web app)

There’s been a lot of hype surrounding cloud technologies in recent months with many looking forward to a future where most, perhaps all, of our data and software services are provided via. web servers. The hype is interesting as cloud computing already exists in many forms (facebook, internet email, Amazon S3, Amazon EC2, etc.) and it’s pretty much inevitable that we will continue to see similar technologies – so predicting we’ll see cloud technologies in the future is like predicting it’ll rain at some point in the future. As for whether this will completely supplant desktop software, I’m doubtful, there are a lot of issues that come with having your data and services on a vendor’s web server, not the least of which is that you don’t have access to them if your internet service goes down. That being said, I’m sure many companies are salivating at the thought of subscription-based SaaS applications and getting customers to pay a continual service fee to use their software. If that happens, we’re in for a pretty bleak future.

What’s interesting about Microsoft in all this is that while MS boasts a new “operating system for the cloud” and launches yet another web technology (they already have like a million “Live” services), it’s latest desktop operating system has encountered a slow and painful adoption due to issues which it seems to be totally ignored. Why is Microsoft ignoring its base and trying to jump on every new technology trend that hits the web? It doesn’t make sense, this does not seem to be how a company in Microsoft’s position should be acting. Microsoft built the bulk of its reputation through its operating system, even through all the growing pains of Windows 95 and Windows ME, why squander that now? Especially after hitting a high-note with Windows XP. With the way things are going Microsoft’s reputation will be one of a impotent juggernaut with a mediocre presence in every segment of the IT market. Microsoft seems to be a company that’s lost focus and direction. Perhaps it’s just gotten too big for its own good.

A great writeup I found after the announcement is here (I think I just stumbled upon this by googling “Windows Cloud”). I particularly like the closing paragraph,

This is not a company that knows what it’s doing. Ballmer and Gates were once masters of their universe. But nothing lasts forever. Ask Lehman Brothers.


I stumbled across an interesting project on reddit yesterday, it’s called Firelight and it’s basically a system that utilizes Javascript + SVG + XAML. It’s still in its infancy and I’m pretty iffy on XAML in general, but it’s a pretty cool idea nonetheless.

Online dating’s for everyone…

Weather Passions,

A 100% free social networking & online dating site specifically for singles with a passion for weather.

… but really, who isn’t turned on by a high pressure system coming in from the west?

Features and benefits in the software world

I stumbled across an old article on CNN Money on how small businesses can attract new customers. I wasn’t that interested in the article and glossed over most of the points, but one did catch my attention:

Emphasize your product’s benefits, not just its features. Say you are selling a teapot with a spill-proof spout. Rather than simply mention the spout’s spill-proof shape, focus on the problems it will prevent: burned hands, ruined suits, etc.

This seemed interesting because in the software world features seem to be evangelized over everything else. However, after digging a bit, I realized the issue is a bit more complicated. In general, what I discovered was that when features are enumerated, they’re usually accompanied by or mixed-in with product benefits, and it’s not always clear-cut that favoring one method over the other is the best approach when it comes to attracting users (in general, even for free products, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to replace the term “customers” with “users” for something like this, as the bottom line is still getting people to use your product).

  • Case 1: Firefox (features then elaboration with benefits)
    The firefox features page shows a simple case of what I’m describing. Features are presented as headers and below each is a concise description of how said feature benefits the end-user. e.g.,

    One-Click Bookmarking
    Bookmark, search and organize Web sites quickly and easily.

    Nice and simple, feature (one-click bookmarking) followed by benefit (bookmark, search and organize web sites quickly and easily.)

  • Case 2: Blogger (mishmash of features and benefits)
    The blogger features page is a bit more of a mishmash. Sometimes benefits are listed as headers with an elaboration of features below it, e.g.

    Publishing your voice is easy and free
    …In a matter of minutes you can start posting text, photos, videos, and more to your blog…

    The header details a benefit of using blogger (it’s easy and free) which the description elaborates and lists a few features (ability to post text, photos, videos, etc.).

    In other cases, it’s vice-versa,

    New post notifications
    Your readers can choose to subscribe to your blog’s feeds, so they’re notified whenever you publish a new blog post…

    Like the Firefox feature page, it’s feature (new post notifications) followed by benefit (readers notified when now posts are published).

  • Case 3: Picasa (verb then elaboration of feature and/or benefit)
    Picasa features is interesting in that it’s headers are verbs describing actions you can virtually perform using the software (organize, edit, create, share). Following the header is a very concise description of features (edit: eliminate scratches & blemishes, fix red-eye, crop, … ) or a benefit (organize: manage your photos in one place, and find photos you forgot you had). This is unbelievably simple yet still seems to accomplish its goal of evangelizing the product. However, this is photo management software, so it’s worth noting that the software itself is a fairly simple mechanism.

There’s a lot more feature pages that can be looked at, but I haven’t found anything else too interesting. Apple does the same as what’s described in the Firefox case; features then elaboration with benefits (e.g. feature page for Xsan). Microsoft is a beast and lists features and benefits in a variety of ways for different products and in different ways. Narrowing the focus and just looking at Office, Microsoft seems to have a product overview for each product (e.g. Word 2007 product overview) which describes benefits and features in the same mishmash way described in the blogger case. There’s also a “Top 10 reasons to try” (e.g. Word 2007 Top 10 page) page which seems to be similar to the product overview, but more concise by listing only 10 benefits or features.

One issue with all the cases described is that the target is the new, uninitiated user. Users who are upgrading probably don’t want to read a ton of information about benefits and features they’re already aware of, so a list for upgrading users may be something important as well.

What’s best? worst? I don’t know. Overall, I like the Picasa case for it’s simplicity. Its features/benefits list is very short and uses only a few sentences, but within that space it manages to describe exactly why that piece of software should or might matter to a potential user and why they should use it.