Why Desktop UI Sucks

Brian will writes a fascinating, very entertaining criticism of modern desktop UI.


Only librarians want to live in a grey, motionless, silent world of text, but for a long time, that’s what the computing experience was. Then came icons and windows, and they could move! Quickly this novelty wore off, so today our menus slide, our workspaces spin in three dimensions, and our windows cross the event horizon every time we minimize them. And our iPhones fart.

Moreover, we increasingly expect interfaces to entertain our hands. Touch screens! Multi-touch! Surface top! Gestures! I’ll admit that these developments are exciting, but they’re exciting mainly because we don’t really know what will come of them—our hopes at this point remain still very vague. As clearly as we can define it, our hope is that computer interaction can be made satisfying in the same way that a good hit on a tennis ball is satisfying or in the same way that closing a well made car door is satisfying.

Sadly, these ideas may turn out to be like virtual reality: worlds of possibilities, none of the possibilities very useful. So we may be in just another cycle of the permutations of fashion. Still, aesthetics and feel really do matter to an extent, for a good layout of information and good use of typography tends to be aesthetically pleasing, and good tactile feel, such as proper mouse sensitivity, definitely facilitates usability.

Pretty much every desktop UI convention sucks, according to Brian.

  • Icons – less recognizable than words
  • Thumbnails – too small to be useful
  • Animations – introduce delays
  • Desktop – encourages mess
    Interface design is largely about rationing precious screen real estate, and…

    …hey, everyone! Here’s this big blank surface going unused! Let’s give it a random assortment of redundant functionality to make up for the inadequacy of our main controls! Sure, the start menu already has a frequently-used program list, but it’s too orderly. And users already have a home directory, but they can’t see its contents at the random moments that their un-maximized windows are positioned just so. Users love messes! Hmm, now we just need umpteen different special mechanisms for hiding all these windows that obscure this precious space.

  • Dialogs – editing the object itself is more intuitive
  • Toolbars – redundant, one-button size requires dialogs
  • Taskbar – scales poorly
  • Application windows – float creates meta work, choices about how to access
  • Drag and drop – Target and destination must both be visible (see previous entry)

He writes concisely about the principles these conventions violate and the long-term trends we should be avoiding.

Elitism is an essential part of human aesthetics. For instance, while we normally think of the features that make a good-looking person good-looking as objective, much of the attraction towards that person hinges on the rarity of their looks, not the looks themselves, per se. Similarly, gold is shiny, but an essential part of its worth is its rarity.

We see this in graphic design as well: what we consider stylish design hinges a lot on what is simply hard to duplicate. In the 60’s, this meant curved plastic furniture; in the 80’s, this meant cheesy computer video effects; and today, this means web pages with rounded corners and glossy effects.

Check him out. It’s a refreshing, illuminating read.

Reinventing the desktop (for real this time) – Part 1