The Contextual GUI
26 Sep 2006

The Contextual GUI

26 Sep 2006

Computerworld.com published an article yesterday about the coming and recent changes in graphical user interfaces by Robert Mitchell. The article highlights advancements which are meant to simplify the user experience based on context, whether it be technological (device used) or operational (item selected). Such advancements include voice commands for mobile devices such as PDA’s, customized layouts for different screen sizes, and menus which change based on the item being edited. The latter, most notably comes from Microsoft’s own Office applications which are renown for their feature-richness and consequently overloaded menu items. As Mitchell reports, the traditional drop-down menus will be replaced by a contextual ribbon bar in Office 2007. Therefore, if you are editing the table of contents, the menu associated with this feature would appear. This echoes the manner in which the traditional ‘picture toolbar’ now appears when editing an image.

Beyond contextual menu items, the GUI will also begin to account for screen resolutions in an even more substantial way than we are currently familiar. For the web, the need to adjust layouts to match screen resolutions has been a fundamental principle which has been tackled with elastic and fluid layouts. The desktop GUI is now set to take this principle yet another step forward to accommodate even more real estate; Mitchell states:

Tomorrow’s GUIs will adapt to bigger screens and multiple displays by rearranging the desktop and relegating different content to primary and secondary displays. Larger display acreage could also push gesture-based input devices such as touch screens, digitizing pads and the stylus into the mainstream.

Although the idea is a simple one: to adjust to a user’s perspective and technology, with the variety of devices and plethora of features in modern-day applications, this small target is an ever-changing one. Mitchell’s article presents great promise for enhanced usability for our most pervasive devices as our GUIs begin to catch up with other advancements in the field.

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  1. P.J. Onori September 26th, 2006 9:51AM

    Nice article – it is interesting (but not surprising) to hear that application UI design is taking lessons from design on the web. Although, through my daily surfing, I’m not sure if that is a good or a bad thing… 😉

    There has been a lot of hype about the new Office UI – I am actually quite interested in seeing it firsthand.

  2. Kimmy September 26th, 2006 12:46PM

    I, too, am very intrigued to get a glimpse at the new Office. As with many applications out there the functionality kept growing and growing with very little (at least effective) change to navigating/finding the various tools. I think some of Adobe’s products (eh-hem, photoshop) could do some investigation in this realm as well 🙂

    One thing that particularly interested me in this article is that we are seeing changes now adapting even more to the physical advancements… the touch screen has been under-utilized to this point, and though I’m not a huge fan of the stylus, I am very intrigued to see what new advancements will come there. I won’t sign off on controlling my entire home with these devices but their applications in classroom demonstrations, boardrooms and more casual business settings will be a great step…

  3. Kimmy September 26th, 2006 2:43PM

    Oh, and I meant to address the fact that the desktop is being influenced now by web applications… I think we’re going to see more and more of it. Most applications are being developed for the web or specific mobile devices now so it’s not surprising that the new trends are likely to be seen there first… the good thing is that we haven’t lost site of the fact that we are still tied to our operating systems, desktop applications and such as they too could use improvements in the overall user experience.

    One key set of applications that showed this first move (unsurprisingly) is that of the web browser… hats of to Mozilla, and more are popping up everyday…

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