User Interface Fashion

Looks Are Deceptive

When I bought my last car, I thought it looked slick, fresh, cool. But then, a couple months later, a friend of mine bought a new car that looked even slicker, fresher, cooler. I could never look at mine with the same eyes again. It didn’t have the same freshness anymore. I have to get a new one, now!

What does this have to do with software? Well, software’s got to look fresh, too. You may think that you buy software on pure rational merits, but often, the facts are against you.

Microsoft, of course, has known this for ages. They are constantly moving the fashion in user interface design (not interaction design, mind you) forward, with every new product release. And everybody else has played catch-up. Excluding Apple.

Long ago, the Windows 3.1 interface was mostly black-on-white. Then Microsoft added 3D borders on dialog boxes and buttons. Then came a completely new look in Windows 95, including a small video clip when you copy a file. Then came the Office 97 tool bars with buttons that have no border until you move your mouse over them. Then, in Office 2000, came the little icons in the menus, not to mention “Clippy”, the animated paper clip. And now, with Office XP, the look of the menus has changed yet again.

Arguably, a lot of these changes are at least attempts at productivity enhancements. But the productivity enhancement part of it could easily have been achieved without an aesthetic redesign. Microsoft, having a clue, redesigned.

Why? Well, I don’t know about you, but the first thing I do when I get my hands on a new piece of software is to play with the user interface. Click on things. Pull down the menus. Right-click everywhere. Just to get a sense of what it does. Learn what’s new. Read the “What’s new” section in the help, you say? Never! I just want to have fun. And since at that moment, I usually don’t have a real task at hand, say, a letter or a program to write, or a diagram to draw, I play with the UI, just for the fun of it. Silly? Yes, I’ll admit to that. But it gives me instant gratification. And as FedEx and UPS well know, instant gratification is worth real money.

What Happens When You Don’t

One example of a company that did not follow Microsoft’s lead, is Borland. At the time, I used Delphi most of my programming work, and I upgraded diligently. And for a long time, each new version that came out would look exactly like the old one. All the new features would be hidden under the surface. Exception handling? Cool, but you can’t see it or play with it. Faster compilation? Excellent, but what does it matter if the first program I write with my new toy is Hello, World? DCOM support? Sure, but that takes hours to get anything useful out of. No instant gratification. I just paid over a thousand dollars for a brand new version of Delphi, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t look exactly like the one I already had. Wait! Maybe I’m still running the old version? Nope. What a waste!

Of course, later, I’d realize that there was actually good bang for the buck in that upgrade. But Borland lost their opportunity to up-front give me that warm and fuzzy feeling. Microsoft would never blow that chance. They know that first impressions last.

Borland’s software may be technically superior, but it looks like it’s last year’s model. And every review there is will always include screen shots. If you can’t see immediately from the screen shots that there’s something new and cool, why buy it? Well, yes, of couse, for boring, rational reasons, but that’s just not as much fun. And after all, if the vendor couldn’t even afford to give it a new look, is there any reaosn to believe they spent the effort to make it better under the hood? We all know that, despite meticulous cost-benefit analysis, the tech CEO usually ends up buying the software that looks coolest. Or the industrial robot. Or the car. Or the beard trimmer. Or whatever.

Hence, Microsoft always do something fresh with the menus and the toolbars, which happens to be the first thing you see when you start the program. Microsoft, of course, is uniquely positioned to introduce fashion just there. Windows already includes basic menus, toolbars, and buttons. But the latest, trendy menu design isn’t released to the general public. If you want to follow suit, you have to implement it yourself, and you’ll find yourself playing catch-up. And since Microsoft dominates your desktop, anyway, eventually everybody will follow suit. And by then, Microsoft will be on their way to something new.

Interesting Side Notes

The splash screens that pass by as you install the software is yet another testament to the value of instant gratification: Gotta let the guy know he bought the coolest software on the planet, while he’s waiting impatiently to get it installed. God, computer users are impatient and ungrateful beasts!

An interesting example of a company that has been successful in not following Microsoft’s visual appearance lead, is Adobe, most notably their Photoshop product. Photoshop has its own unique look and feel, partly because of their Mac background, partly just because Adobe is stubborn, and rightly so. But Photoshop arguably has a different audience than most other software: Hard-core graphic professionals that use it every day. Photoshop already has a considerable learning curve, but the learning curve is equally rewarded in productivity-enhancing short-cuts. The point is that Photoshop’s audience will be inclined to look much deeper before being disappointed. But Adobe still knows better than to not provide something visibly new with every release.

Another, related thing, that Microsoft does well, is always include some obscure feature, that is clearly useless, but fun to show to your friends. Word’s “Text Effects” (a tab in the Font format dialog) is an example of this. When has anyone ever had the need to surround a text by marching red ants? Yet it’s there, and it’s fun to say “Did you know that Word could do this?”. Likeways with Auto-summary. It’s utterly useless in practice, but when you take your friend’s doctoral thesis and ask for a 5-line summary, amusing nonsense ensue. Or the dockable toolbars. Lots of fun to play around with, but not a single person that I know actually ended up having them any other place than right below the menu. And I won’t even mention “Clippy”. The point is that you tend to show it to your friends, and that they tend to want to have that, too, so they can show it to their friends. So the next Monday, they go beg their boss to buy the latest version of Microsoft’s software. And eventually, he will.

Is It Worth It?

So is it worth it to invest in a new, snazzy look for the latest version? Microsoft obviously seems to believe that it is. Not to mention the car industry. And, of course, the fashion industry.

And, not surprisingly, I believe so, too. Especially if you’re operating in web software and not desktop software, it doesn’t really cost that much to hire a graphic designer and tell him: Redesign this, so it looks like next year’s model. You might as well. Where you’re going to find the money? How about using the money that you gained by doing your interaction design.


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