GUI Design : I like to focus on important tasks.

I take a lot of inspiration from the iPhone, as to me its this device that fits in your hand and has not a lot of real estate, yet it accomplishes more tasks at times than most computer desktops today. I can make calls, check email, look at calendar, browse sites online, play a game, set a task, take notes, tag a song for future purchase, tag a book for future purchase and so on.

All tucked inside a small device.

I typically each morning, check email in bed when I first wake up – habit from working at Microsoft where email dominates your life – and it struck me this morning about the way the iPhone was designed. I looked at the outer frame, and noticed for the first time that it was designed in such a way to be simply a "frame" to what is important, the software.

It hit me as a profound thought that despite the look and attraction of the iPhone, the actual device itself was firstly made to look appealing as it sits in your hand, but secondly it was designed to fade into the background when you decide to actually use it.

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Armed with this thought, I jumped on both my iMac and Windows machine and explored the various applications I have installed and noticed that there seems to be a lot of confusion on the Windows side of things and less on the OSX side of things. It struck me that the difference between Windows and OSX isn’t the brand wars, it’s the subtle way things are designed to keep people focused on the task and less on the framing of the task.

In Windows, each application becomes its own pattern, or "iPhone" whereas on OSX typically most applications chrome looks the same, in fact it must be extremely hard for software vendors to deviate from Apple’s look and feel.

This then made me think about how I’ve designed UI in the past, and I often think about the way I’ve approached the overall user interface. I have since then experimented with the way one project’s design looks, and thought about how my chrome should be prominent at the start of the applications boot sequence (login etc). Then once the hygiene task has taken place, it’s job is then to blend into the background.

Look at below, you will see that in isolation the design (even in its blank canvas form) becomes a focal point, the icon and then the panel at top etc.

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Now look at the change if I simply add a rounded white rectangle, the actual chrome fades to the background, and the white overpowers your attention. You probably wouldn’t of even noticed this had i not told you about it either.

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This to me is where I think software design – aka interaction design – can make or break you in terms of how users interact with your solution. My theory is that a user interfaces job is to take you to the heart of a problem, its job is to connect you to the most important thing you can possibly do from within the context of the application. Sadly though, I rarely see this in software design today, all too often I see the software become more of a Swiss army knife in terms of features and needs. The argument there is well we are good at processing multiple tasks at the same time, which is true, but i also can’t but help wonder if we’re following the same mundane pattern over and over, resulting in no evolution in GUI.

The only evolution in GUI that I’ve really seen in the last 5+ years has been the introduction of gesture based interfaces (iPhone, Microsoft Surface etc). This has changed the way we’ve approached design, as now it’s about touching the glass and manipulating design with our hands. It’s about designing around the fact we can’t see through our hands and traditional software GUI has to change into something that accommodates the new approach.

In doing this, we reverted back to simplicity. This to me, highlights that as much as we want to argue that Office Ribbon for example makes life easier to experience the plethora of features found in Microsoft Word etc, the reality is, they (Office Team) just found a way to simplify the overall interface to the bare minimum, and keep people focused on the important features.

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The problem though is I can’t seem to separate the framing of the software from the functionality, meaning as I type this blog post in Microsoft Word, I keep noticing the Ribbon Menu as I type. I instead want the UI to somehow take the life of the white document space and this is all I see, then when I need something from the office draw, I then go to it. The same as if I would on my desk at home, where if I need a post-it note etc, I turn away, open a draw and get it.

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Its a rough example, but the point is hopefully made.