Friday, August 15, 2008

BumpTop desktop criticism

There's a desktop project called BumpTop, which aims to make working with your computer files just like working at a real desk. The thought that this is the future of computing interfaces makes me cringe. It's almost as disturbing as the idea of shopping for real items by navigating a virtual avatar through a virtual shopping mall.

Now I'll give BumpTop some credit. It's a good example of how radically different our computing experience could be and how much potential there is for innovation. The project shows how the idea of physical position is significant in the human experience and can be used in user interfaces. Unfortunately, BumpTop just takes the physical analogy to literally to be useful.

One of the most obvious problems with BumpTop demo is the lack of labels. How do you know which PDF is which? If you make a little thumbnail of the content can you really identify the file when it's just a half-inch square on your screen? If you turn on filenames they'll overlap each other and be difficult to read. What if I want to look at additional information such as size, modification date, etc?

Next is physical usability issues. Is simulating a physical environment really that useful? If I toss a file onto a bunch of others do I really want it to move the files it impacted? How will BumpTop represent thousands of files in a directory, won't this be a big mess? How is rotation of icons useful, doesn't it just make my brain work harder to recognize them? What if I can't see something because it is obscured by other files?

I think the greatest and saddest irony of BumpTop is that it aims to improve the problems with the contemporary desktop by replacing it with something better but instead extends the central idea of the current desktop (physicality) to an even more frustrating and extent. Think about it this way:

Imagine we're all using BumpTop. Someone comes along and says "BumpTop is great and all, but it's got some problems: it's annoying when your files get rotated and I always accidentally bump files with each other and sometimes the 3D perspective prevents me from seeing files hidden behind large stacks". Then someone comes along with a solution: "Know what'd be great, a desktop where files can't rotate upside down, and they can't bump each other away, and instead of using stacks, we'll have folders that contain all of the files without obstructing other files on your desktop". Sounds a lot like what we've got doesn't it...

Now I do believe we should have better desktop UI's, but BumpTop just isn't it. I'll elaborate on what I think we should do in another post.


squaregoldfish said...

Moved here from the e-users discussion, as it's off-topic :)

I actually like the idea of a circular menu. Every menu item is the same distance from the current position than all the others, so there's much less movement required to navigate them. There's also a huge potential for muscle memory to be used, in the same manner as mouse gestures made popular in Opera. Once you've learned where the menu entries are, a quick click-and-drag in the right direction is much quicker than popping up a menu and scrolling down it to find the right entry.

Obviously, you can't get away with having too many entries in a circular menu, but a bit of creative thinking around sub-menus should present some workarounds.

Arlo said...

I'm a bit undecided on circular menus.

On the one hand, as you pointed out the user doesn't have to move the mouse as far and ideally can keep moving the mouse in one direction instead of zig-zaging through linear menus.

On the other hand, new entries in the menu seem more confusing then if you modify entries in a linear menu.

I also wonder if it's easier to scan down a list or around an area in a circle. Maybe there's been eye research on this?

squaregoldfish said...

I don't know about eye research. A lot of that sort of thing goes on, but I don't know about this specific case.

Of course, there's no reason why you can't use both menu types in the same system. For small menus that aren't likely to change (cut, copy, paste and other common actions) you could have a circular menu, and for lists of applications you could have linear ones. You could even have a linear sub-menu on a circular menu. That might get a bit confusing, but I don't think it would be that hard to grasp.