Dec 12 2007 · User Interface Design
I recently got a Mac Mini and begun playing around in OS X. One of the first things I stumbled upon is Dashboard, which brings up an overlay displaying widgets, small apps that display things like weather, time, calendar, etc. I thought this was incredibly cool (especially because of the weather widget, as I hate going to weather.com and having to type in my zip code every time I want to know what’s happening outside). As a feature it’s very well designed; it looks great, it’s easy to get to, it didn’t pollute my desktop in any way, the information was useful and informative, and in less than a minute I implicitly understood how it worked.
I figured there must be something similar for Windows, if not I was even thinking it might be a fun project to make something similar. I did try Google Desktop a while back, but the experience was not the same, and was definitely not pleasant. I didn’t like that it was essentially a panel (a large one at that) pasted into a corner of my desktop. I like my desktop. I want my stuff on it. I don’t want to cede the real estate to a third-party. In the end, I uninstalled Google Desktop, and was left with an overall negative impression of the product. I haven’t used Vista as much, but the Vista sidebar seems to make the same mistake.
After some searching I found Yahoo! Widgets. It seemed perfect. However, after I installed it, I was disappointed, it looked cool, but it didn’t seem to function like Dashboard at all. After some twiddling I did finally massage it into working akin to Dashboard; however, I been less patient or not as tech savy, I would have quickly uninstalled it and deemed by discovery worthless.
So, what’s the point? The point is pretty simple (and I don’t think I’m breaking new ground here): the initial experience a user has with a piece of software is vitally important and if the developer fails to provide a positive experience to the end-user after setup, the software is a failure (users will simply uninstall it), no matter how cool the interface is, the potential productivity gain, or the hundreds of cool features. My experience with Yahoo! Widgets and Dashboard exemplify this perfectly.
So what’s wrong with Yahoo! Widgets? Technically, I don’t think anything is wrong with it. It seems stable, powerful, has nice features, and the widgets seem cool (personally, I really only cared about the weather and a calendar). However, after installation, it stuck this dock panel on my desktop along with a bunch of widgets. Now, as I already mentioned, I hate things assuming they have the right to pollute my desktop. Ownership is important. So I was not a fan of the dock nor the widgets themselves, which, unlike the dashboard widgets, didn’t fade in and out with an overlay. This was annoying. I wanted my desktop back.
So I went to preferences and found out I could press F8 to active the overlay. Great! (however, I’m going into the Preferences window to actually figure this out – why wasn’t this mentioned sooner). The overlay shows up, kinda disappointed that the taskbar isn’t covered, but I can live with that. I deactive the overlay. damn! the dock and widgets are still stuck on my desktop.
I play around in the Preference window for a while and look at the options for the dock. I discover I can get rid of the dock, that’s good, but I’m thinking this isn’t for me, and about ready to uninstall.
I continue playing around. With the overlay off, I close all the widgets. I accidentally hide one of them. I hit F8. Wait! That’s the effect I wanted! But what did I do? I realize that there are 2 options to get rid of a widget, Close and Hide. Close gets rid of the widget altogether and Hide only show the widget when the overlay is active. Why didn’t I know this, like the F8 key, this was never explained to me (remember me, the end-user, the one using the product). It’s not in the product tour, there’s no tooltip, and I certainly didn’t spot anything in the help.
I’m happy now! I customize the system to show the widgets I want and I hit F8 whenever I want to see them 🙂
So that’s the story. Ultimately, from my experience with both applications, I learned:
- The desktop belongs to the user, don’t pollute it unless they allow you to. (this might be more of a personal preference than anything else)
- Present important app-specific information ASAP and make things as intuitive as possible. Avoid having users discover features by reading documentation or going into a settings/preferences window.
- The initial user experience is important. Don’t fuck it up.
I do realize there is a bias here as I was looking for something that functioned like Dashboard, but if the default post-setup environment for Yahoo! Widgets is how the developers see others using their application, that seems totally weird to me because it’s assuming a whole lot of users have so much free space on their desktop that they’d obviously want to stick a bunch of widgets on it. Hmm, I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong and most users do have a lot of free space on their desktop, but my desktop certainly doesn’t fit into this category, and even if it did, I’m not sure I’d want a widget on it (I like my wallpaper).