The arrogant curveball

Monday 5th July

In which two popular browsers confound all expectations.

Recently, I upgraded to the latest version of Opera, and soon realised why I hadn’t done so earlier: that browser’s lack of regard for usability. Here’s the default view I’m presented with in version 10.6:

Following a trend started — I believe — by Google’s Chrome, Opera have decided to do away with menus as we know and love them, and present them in a completely different manner:

Just a couple of reasons why this is really bad:

  1. Consistency. All of a sudden, the positioning, style, and behaviour (in terms of keyboard shortcuts, at least) is completely different from all other applications the user is familiar with.
  2. Transparency. No, not that kind. Without clicking something, the user can no longer see all top-level menu items available to them. Effectively, all menus have been hidden under a single ‘Menu’ item, which then requires an extra click to activate anything from the menu.

As far as I know, Chrome was the first browser to ‘pioneer’ this terrible technique, with its ‘icon menus’. It goes without saying that highly usable design is hardly Google’s strong point. In a similar vein, Chrome completely tears apart native UI in a whole other way: by pretending to be running on Vista, even when it isn’t:

And finally, back to Opera. Heard about the Windows convention that double-clicking a window’s title bar toggles between maximising and restoring said window? Not with Opera it doesn’t. The first double-click does, indeed, maximise. But some bright spark thought it would be sensible to then remove the title bar in that state, and shift the tab bar up over it. And double-clicking the tab bar adds a new tab …

There are plenty of other examples of this behaviour, from iTunes to Windows Media Player, but it all smacks of one thing to me: arrogance. Someone thought their software was so unique, so special, that it should look or behave differently from everything that the user is expecting. I call it the ‘arrogant curveball’, and it’s about time it stopped.


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Comments

Thu 8 Jul 2010 08:21

Rik

Rik said:

"There are plenty of other examples of this behaviour" — meaning it’s not unique? Meaning that it *is* becoming convention!

Thus your argument doesn’t really stand.

Regardless, I don’t mind this — it hides away stuff I don’t use, and as such, means my screen is cluttered with useless menus that I hardly ever touch. Perfect.

I move to Chrome purely because I liked this! Standards have to start somewhere!

Thu 8 Jul 2010 13:10

Bobby Jack

Bobby Jack said:

@Rik: Whilst there are 3 or 4 web browsers adopting this behaviour, there are many, many more applications that do not. My operating system sets the standards for how an application presents a menu, and applications should honour that.

Breaking the standard behaviour might be OK for you or I (who at least know how to re-enable it and, in your case, don’t desire it anyway) but there’s a whole swathe of users who will just be confused by it. It might be consistent across a handful of web browsers, but don’t forget that the vast majority of users only ever see one browser, whilst they see many other applications behaving in a predictable, usable manner.

The menu bar is only 20 pixels tall on my display; is it really worth losing all the benefits of a consistent interface for such a pitiful gain?

Mon 26 Jul 2010 21:06

said:

I think you are missing the point. The idea to maximize the window usage area and reduce all the (usually unnecessary) menus. Just because you need click one more is hardly an issue.

"My operating system sets the standards for how an application presents a menu, and applications should honour that."

Where does this rule come from? The only things that should remain consistent in any OS application is the task bar (or dock) and the application minimize/maximize, fullscreen and close buttons. And 99% of applications are consistent in this regard. Everything else is up to the developer to design how things how they seem fit for their application.

"but there’s a whole swathe of users who will just be confused by it."

More users familiarize themselves by exploring. If a user gets confused by being forced clicking one extra time to see the menu (which is clearly labeled), then they should seriously consider if a computer is a tool that they should be using. Just because you can dumb everything down to the lowest common denominator, does not mean you should.

Tue 27 Jul 2010 04:37

Bobby Jack

Bobby Jack said:

Re: the above comment

I think you are missing the point. The idea to maximize the window usage area and reduce all the (usually unnecessary) menus. It also doesn’t reduce the number of menus; quite the opposite, in fact: it adds a whole extra level of menu to the hierarchy.

I referred to the 'space saving' in my previous comment: it’s only 20 pixels of height which is relatively small, bearing in mind what I consider to be the disadvantages of this approach.

Where does this rule come from?

Most operating systems (or 'desktop environments') have Human Interface guidelines to describe how various features should be implemented. The GNOME guidelines, for example, state:

The menubar is normally visible at all times and is always accessible from the keyboard, so make all the commands available in your application available on the menubar.

Apple’s guidelines, of course, refer to the 'global' menu bar which displays a single application’s menu at any given time, so the issue is resolved by having consistency built in by default.

The only things that should remain consistent in any OS application is the task bar (or dock) and the application minimize/maximize, fullscreen and close buttons.

The various UI guidelines provide a number of additional elements that should remain consistent. I’m not sure what your reasoning for just limiting UI consistency to the above items is. How is the menu bar sufficiently different from, for example, the minimize/maximize buttons, that would justify breaking the consistency? Obviously its content varies from app to app, but its placement and overall functionality should, in my opinion, remain consistent.

More users familiarize themselves by exploring.

Whilst some users certainly display that behaviour, it’s a generally accepted principle that forcing them to do so is not a good idea. Eric S. Raymond deals with this in his excellent book, The Art of Unix Programming:

The easiest programs to use are those that demand the least new learning from the user

Therefore, avoid gratuitous novelty and excessive cleverness in interface design.

Again, the GNOME UI guidelines touch on this:

Make your application consistent with itself and with other applications, in both its appearance and its behavior. This is one of the most important design principles, and probably the most famous, but it is also frequently ignored.

… back to your other points…

If a user gets confused by being forced clicking one extra time to see the menu (which is clearly labeled), then they should seriously consider if a computer is a tool that they should be using. Just because you can dumb everything down to the lowest common denominator, does not mean you should.

Here, we really differ! I believe that everyone should be entitled to use a computer, no matter what physical or cognitive challenges they may face. Poor accessibility and/or usability affects us all, from the average user to the most intelligent members of our society. I think we're doing society a disservice when we exclude anyone for no good reason.

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