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GUIs considered disaster-prone

I'm trying to get the hang of this GUI stuff people are expected to use these days.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't it like this:

The submarine commander is looking at a dialog that says "Run routine maintenance now? (OK/Cancel)" and decides to click on OK.  But while the nerve impulse is travelling down his arm, and it is too late for him to stop it, a pop-up window appears, saying "An unidentified object has appeared on the radar.  Do you wish to launch a missile? (OK/Cancel)" and, as bad luck would have it, the "OK" button on this window is in exactly the same place as the "OK" on the underlying window.

Well, ok, perhaps it would take more than one click to launch a missile, but you get the general idea: seriously bad things could happen.  Especially if the commander doesn't even notice that his click went into the wrong window.  Quite likely, with the missile now airborne, the pop-up window will have gone away, and when the commander glances at the screen, he sees his dialog still there.  Assuming that the mouse button didn't register his click (these dratted pieces of plastic they expect me to use these days), he clicks again, and everything appears normal.

N.B. I'm not saying Dos was better.  Obviously it wasn't, in most ways.  But I'm really puzzled that the world these days seems to run on such disaster-prone GUI stuff.  I'm surprised Microsoft hasn't already been sued for trillions of dollars as a result of something going seriously wrong.  Microsoft could try blaming the application programmer, but surely pop-up windows are their baby.

Ben Wint
Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Seems like your main concern is modal vs. non-modal GUI mode. There were a lot of discussions on this in last ten years. You might go to Google and search web and newsgroups for "modal vs. non-modal". Quick summary: there's no winner.

And no, it was not Microsoft who invented non-modal dialogs.

Igor K.
Wednesday, October 30, 2002

An interesting comparison, but not entirely valid: You see, that's just a poor design for a submarine command system; it shouldn't allow that.

The thing is not that a GUI can lead to disaster, because command line can, too. I am reminded of a time when I was cleaning up my /etc directory by getting rid of all of those ~ files. There's just one character difference between rm *~ and rm *.

Anything can be disasterous. The trick is to design the interface, be it command line, telepathic, GUI, 3D, whatever in a manner that promotes productivity and safety.

Doing it right means never launching a missile for maintence.

Mike Swieton
Wednesday, October 30, 2002

There's a well known rule called the "2-3 rule".

This means that you must use two clicks to do something that could have serious repercussions (which explains why you get the do you want to save changes dialog box with yes as the default when you try to close a file in Word without previously saving) and why if you delete a file you first get the message box asking you if you really want to (however much Alan Cooper may rant against it) and then still have the chance to restor it from the recycle bin (3 decisions in total).

This is not a Microsoft rule; when you edit the BIOS you will find a "Save Changes to CMOS" message when you hit exit with the default set to "No" since you are more likely to foul up ediiting the BIOS than leaving it alone.

One irriitating thing about Windows is the fact that delete is placed in the context menu just over rename (the reason for this is that the order of the contect menu is that of the appearance of the element in the registry - however this is editable so  MS could have changed it if they wanted). I would have given a seperate frame at least to minimize the chance of hitting it accidentally.

Stephen Jones
Wednesday, October 30, 2002

If you look at the long-dead history of guis, you'll see that their point was to lessen the burden of memorizing commands.  Nowadays, we're trapped into emulating forms.  There's no reason why these sorts of errors should occur.

Those errors you mention happen disturbingly often, though.  Just as you're about to press enter, some dialog box asks if you really want to play "Globalthermonuclear War."  God help the people who hunt-n-peck...

Wednesday, October 30, 2002

HA! That one got me laughing.  How true it is, that windows decide that they should be in the fore-ground for no particular reason.

Nat Ersoz
Wednesday, October 30, 2002

I don't think GUIs have a monopoly on facilitating disasters.

rm -rf * .ext

Oops, I mean

rm -rf *.ext

Goodbye $10b intelligence cache.

Almost as credible as your submarine example. :)


Robert Anderson
Thursday, October 31, 2002

whereas on my mac, Missile Control's icon starts bouncing and it says "Excuse me, Missile Control needs your attention".  (Yes I know they've tried it on Windows, but I still get windows popping up while I'm typing all the time - it's just the taskbar icon flashes AS WELL!). 

Thursday, October 31, 2002

Must have been an MCSE submarine commander. A submarine detecting an aircraft should DIVE.

Sub Hunter
Thursday, October 31, 2002

The trick with 'pop-ups' is not that they come up in front of the visible output of what's going on, it's that they steal focus.

Windows for some reason has never gotten focus right. On the Macintosh, there seems to be one cursor. If you see a blinking I-beam, and you type a letter, that's where it's going to go. On Windows, you could have 3 supposedly active places, and only one of them is real. This causes all sorts of weirdness, and can be a security hole.

One thing X sometimes does right is focus on a non-top window.

What you really need is a special key which says 'move focus to top window', and users need to somehow understand to use it. Maybe another logo key?

And don't get me started on the fake 'windows' in popup ads.

Friday, November 1, 2002

there is some really good "power tool" for windows which I haven't used for a long time, which puts focus on the window the cursor is currently in, x-style.
So you can type in a window in the background while having some other small window in front. Useful many times.

Friday, November 1, 2002

It is funny - I just payed Sub Command and you can notice the difference between old Los Angeles (688i) controls and new in Seawolf. (These are US submarines if you don't know).

Seawolf have consistent matrix  touch screen panels as UI, while Los Angeles have hardware buttons for everything.

I guess Seawolf constructors wanted to make UI better. But as a result - most operations require two actions instead of one, plus necessity to remember where you are in the screen hierarchy.

Roman Eremin
Friday, November 1, 2002

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