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On Look and Feels

Posted by zixle on January 25, 2007 at 3:05 PM PST

For the past couple of releases we've been focusing significantly on the system look and feels (Windows XP/Vista and GTK). Sure, we updated the Java look and feel in 1.5, but that was more of redocorating the bathroom rather then remodeling the house. Our focus on system look and feels was in response to the cries of customers and the community screaming that the system look and feel matters, and is in fact is critical! After all, who wants an app that doesn't fit in with the desktop?

Yes, who does? Well, I suspect many folks actually don't care! That's right, I'm questioning whether the system look and feels matter as much as we've been lead to believe. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Here's the set of apps I run day in and day out on my Windows box:
Firefox, Thunderbird, NetBeans, Gaim, Total Commander, Yahoo! Widgets and Light Room. What's interesting about this set of apps is that I suspect Total Commander is the only one that directly uses the system toolkit. That's just a suspicion though, I don't confidently know what Total Commander is running, all I can say about Total Commander is that it doesn't look very much like an XP app. Total Commander is a better fit for DOS;) I use Total Commander as it extremely customizable and you can do everything from the keyboard; a power users dream for file management. That it isn't the prettiest app doesn't bother me (well, ok, if given the choice between two functionally equivalent versions of the app, I'll choose the prettier).

Adobe's Light Room is a wonderful app, but it looks nothing like the rest of the desktop. Does that bother me? No! I use Light Room for a particular task, and that it doesn't look much like the desktop in no way bothers me.

We also have a Mac at home. Surely the Mac must be a paragon of
consistency, right? Well, take a look at any of Apple's
pro-apps, such as Aperture or Final Cut Pro. These apps
definitely have an Apple'ish look to them, but they don't have
the exact same look as the rest of the apps on the desktop.

And lets not forget the web apps that are out there. Gmail is great for occasional email, but it too doesn't look anything like a desktop app. The same is true of most AJAX and Flash apps.

So, what gives? Does the system look and feel matter? Could it be that the cries we were hearing were primarily the result of our dated Java look and feel? And the knee jerk reaction from the community was to demand the system look and feel? I have to wonder that if we had kept the Java look and feel modern and fresh (not Ocean), would we have heard such a demand for the system look and feel?

I suppose you could take my argument one step further, that the look of the app doesn't really matter that much to the end user. What does matter is whether they are able to complete the task they need to get done with it in a timely manner. Anything on top of that is just icing.

While I'm not sold on apps needing to look consistent on the desktop, having a consistent feel, in terms of keyboard accessibility, is critical to me. Can you imagine not being able to use control-c (on windows) for copy? Or what about something other than alt-F4 for closing windows. That would drive me batty in a heart beat.

Now for the controversial (yes, it gets better). Is it time we take some of the energy we've been putting in the system look and feels and channel it into a stellar cross platform look and feel? Even if it came at the expense of fixing more off by one pixel problems in the system look and feels for a release?

Please don't take this train of thought as an indication that we're
decommitting from the system look and feels. That couldn't be
further from the truth; the same number of folks continue to fix
bugs for both XP and GTK as has for the last release (well, except
for occasional help from an unlikely source)! I'm posting this
blog to stir up a discussion on the merits of the system look and
feels as compared to cross platform look and feels.

    -Scott

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