Archive for February, 2011

Is Chrome a Crime?

Yesterday, Steven Poole published his manifesto “Against Chrome” on 3quarksdaily.com. He wasn’t referring to Google’s popular web browser, but rather to the now ubiquitous visual interface style with shiny metallic surfaces and gleaming buttons that evokes some highly polished piece of machinery. Most of us use one or more such applications, be it web browsers, word processors, or apps for our mobile phone. Poole argues that this has gotten completely out of hand, and points to music creation software, which has certainly gone to great lengths in imitating actual sound gear such as amps, mixers, and the like. In place of such excesses, Poole advocates a new and simpler aesthetic for user interfaces, inspired by (ironically) a Microsoft product, Windows Phone 7.

I have great sympathy for Poole’s point of view. I have seen plenty of garish interfaces that quite pointlessly imitates actual objects, and whose designers are obviously as infatuated with visual “bling” as a mediocre rap artist. Still, let us pause for a minute and think before we throw out the baby with the bath water.

Admittedly, there are plenty of bad interfaces out there, and some designers don’t think twice before jumping on the bandwagon. Almost nobody is entirely immune from this kind of thing, even Apple has had its bad moments (remember “brushed metal”?). However, imitating physical reality isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. When the graphical user interface was born, the metaphor of the desktop, the document and the waste basket put a familiar and friendly face on the computer, and helped users understand what they could do, and how. Due to limited graphical processing capabiity, the visual representations were simple, almost crude by present-day standards, but they were none the less highly effective, and have been instrumental in making the computer a household item, something that would have been unthinkable 30 years ago.

I feel that this approach is still quite valuable, especially because our opportunity to use visual representations in interfaces has improved dramatically. Where the early GUI pioneers had to content themselves with simple bitmapped symbols, our options are endless. We can use this power to benefit the user directly. A button, for instance, is far easier to understand if it looks three-dimensional and pressable. And even though we all use computers daily, many users still face hurdles where the proper use of graphics can be of real help.

And proper use is really what it’s all about. The problem that Poole points out is caused by designers designing cool-looking stuff just because they can, and forgetting the user in the process. For each thing we want to add, we should ask ourselves whether or not it will benefit the user. If we can do that, our interfaces should improve a lot.