Covered Topics

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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Form Should Follow Function: Designers of Anything, Please Read and Heed

Once in a great while, someone comes up with something not merely innovative, but truly revolutionary. A good example is the extended cab, a.k.a. "supercab", or "quad cab" pickup truck. Prior to this innovation, pickup trucks had zero room in the cab for storage of personal items and were decidedly uncomfortable to ride in. Yes, there were "crew cabs", but those are huge and ungainly beasts to park or maneuver - especially if it has the 8' bed. For those of us who don't need to haul 6 roughnecks out to work in an oil field, the "extended" cab is a great alternative: It offers the extra lockable and dry storage space, seating options, and breathing room that make for a much more comfortable and functional vehicle than a standard cab pickup. In short, the person who came up with this was a true thinker, a true innovator, who made a genuine improvement to a product that had not appreciably changed in decades.

Regarding computers, true innovation came with the GUI interface, the mouse, desktop and laptop form factors, ... All of these have made computing available and usable to most people - including non-techies. Laptops and wi-fi have brought a degree of mobility and functionality to computing not envisioned prior to 20 years ago.

Form should follow function - things don't work as well when we place form ABOVE function.

More recently, computer users have been barraged with many not-so-useful changes - ones I argue are mere changes to form that really don't amount to any improved functionality. Two glaring examples that come to mind are the new Firefox 4 and now 5 web browser and LINUX's GNOME 3 desktop.

Firefox 4+: Change for Change's Sake?
Over the past several years I have greatly enjoyed using Firefox for my web browsing in both Windows and LINUX environments. I loved have the same great web browser with the same settings and the same bookmarks both on my Windows PC at work and my LINUX machine here at home. As new software revisions of Firefox came and went, the basic layout and drop-down menus stayed pretty much the same. Starting with Firefox 4, however, they took away the toolbars and drop-down menus we have all known and used for years. Rather than being able to perform the upgrade to the next version and resume work, we now have to relearn where everything is. Furthermore I am reading online of many people complaining that their browser plugins no longer work in Firefox 4, and that Firefox 4 has memory leaks that weren't there in the 3.6.X releases.

Mozilla, I have just three simple questions for you:

1) How has the functionality of your product been improved in the latest 4.0 and 5.0 releases?

2) What do you intend to do as far as restoring the functionality of broken plugins that folks have used and come to depend on prior to this?

3) What (if anything) has been improved in FF5, and what is to be gained through the short revision/release cycles you mentioned in a recent press release? I'd love to hear the rationale behind this.

It's too bad that even Opera has fallen for this foolishness and changed their interface to match that of Firefox. Sticking with the tried-and-true "classic" format might have given them a boost in market share. Just because one entity does something does NOT mean the whole herd must follow!
When I was a kid and said "why can't I do _________? So-and-so gets to do it.", my mom would reply "Karl, if your friend jumped off a bridge or ran out in front of a car, would you do it too, just because he did?" There's a lesson in there; it's a shame more companies, institutions, and even individuals, haven't learned it.

GNOME 3 or iPhone?
Last week, I tested Fedora Core 15 LINUX 'live' CD release. Given the large number of bug fixes I have seen on FC 14, I'm sure there have been plenty of issues fixed in FC 15. GNOME 3 is the desktop environment that ships with FC 15. Again, as with Firefox 4.0+, they have removed the familiar drop down menus and replaced them with an interface that reminds me of an iPad/iPhone or an "Android" device. While this is cool on a hand held device, I really don't care for it on my desktop or laptop PC. It is also interesting to note that some folks have taken to "hacking" GNOME 3 in attempt to recreate the setup they had on GNOME 2. I'd have screenshots of GNOME 3's menus on this page, but they cleverly fixed the screenshot applet so that it won't work within the various menu screens when running from the 'live' CD.
Thank you - GNOME developers - That was truly "innovative".

GNOME Developers - I beg you to answer the following:

1) HOW will this change made my computing experience more productive v.s. GNOME 2?

2) Will these changes affect any of the applications I now run and depend upon to do my work?

Akin to Fake Plastic Pop Rivets
The changes to Firefox and GNOME I have described herein remind me of the fake plastic pop-rivets I'm seeing lately on new models of certain brands of pickup trucks. No doubt some misguided automotive designer thought these would give the truck a "tough" appearance that would appeal to a certain demographic. What I see is a bunch of phony trim that will collect all manner of dirt and crud, and be more difficult to wax - since one will need a Q-tip swab to dig these deposits out of all these unneeded crevices. I suspect that in northern climates where road salts are used the trim may even exacerbate body rust-through. Thus, it can be argued that even the function of the vehicle has been slightly impaired by the junk trim. At trade-in time these vehicles may even have a lower resale value due to their dated appearance that likely will NOT be in style by then.

As a graphic artist I know says "Form should follow function - therein lies good design."

The world would run much better if more people heeded that.

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