Plug-ugly interfaces down to the bone

For many of you, the following observation may seem obvious, but I will make it anyway: Windows is ugly. (I rather wonder whether I should start watching over my shoulder for hit men sent out by Microsoft Corp.’s graphic design department . . . on second thought, given the number of critics of their output, I would suspect it will be a while until they get to me.)

Windows fails miserably in the aesthetics department. And, in my opinion (and that of many other people), in the usability department as well (one can hardly call Alt-Tab or Alt-Space intuitive ways to get basic windows control operations done).

Now, it has always been a tenet of the Windows world and, for that matter, the Mac world that started this whole foolishness, that applications should conform to interface standards.

And what have we wound up with? Well, in the Mac world things aren’t too bad, but they aren’t great-the Mac interface has lost much of its clean lines and simplicity, while in the Windows world, well, would “plug-ugly” be a good description?

Of course, operating system user interfaces aren’t one-dimensional. They consist of graphical conventions, visual architectural designs, component behaviours and services, and any given interface can be ugly in one or more dimensions. It just so happens that Windows is ugly in most of them.

Just look at the problems that beset Windows after all these years-a billion user interface snafus that are maddening at best. I have applications with modal dialogue boxes that disappear behind the main application window (all you can do is kill off the application), system tray items that vanish when Internet Explorer misbehaves (is that pathetic or what?) and application interfaces that occasionally (and for no apparent reason) slow to a crawl!

And I guess that while I’m being unpleasant about Windows, I should tilt at a couple of other targets: BeOS-an operating system I love! Really nice to use, clean design, but those damn tabs on each Window frame. Ugh.

And then there’s NetWare. Again, an operating system I am in awe of, but ConsoleOne! Give me a break. It is slow and clunky. And worse still, throw out the ConsoleOne graphical user interface (GUI), and you have a barely usable command-line interface (CLI) underneath. I have nothing against CLIs, but when you have an operating system as complex as NetWare you need something to make life organized, and Novell’s applications that use the company’s eccentric original GUI don’t cut it.

And along with the ugly interfaces comes ugly customer and technical service. I contend that the quip that beauty may be only skin deep but ugly goes all the way to the bone is especially true when you’re talking operating system user interface architectures.

Want to see creative application interface design? If you haven’t looked at it before, check out Kai Krause’s Kai’s Power Tools, an excellent graphics utility. But what made the application stand out was the weird user interface layout-it worked beautifully because Kai cared about usability (and obviously thought that Windows wasn’t right for his purposes) and about beauty-he cared that everyone who saw the interface took one look and said “Wow!”

So what should a corporate desktop user interface look like? Should users have to learn conventions such as Alt+Tab to switch applications? Should users have to learn much of anything about applications? Indeed, is it possible to have applications (and for that matter operating system environments) that are really intuitive?

Gibbs is a contributing editor at Network World (US). He is at