Buzz’s Blog: On Web 3.0 and the Semantic Web

Dec 4 2010   1:27AM GMT

What makes a mega-app’s interface intuitive?

Roger King Roger King Profile: Roger King

As desktop and notebook computers become faster, very good graphics cards become the norm, upload and download bandwidth widens, and as the number of consumer-oriented media applications explodes, more and more of us are dealing with massive user interfaces.  So, what makes some mega-apps inscrutable and others intuitive?

What are these mega-apps?

What are mega-apps?  Those programs with multi-layers interfaces, with multiple main menu settings, countless complex windows, numerous embedded drop-downs, arrays of palettes, seas of tool boxes, etc., etc.  It’s those applications where you can only see a small fraction of a given app’s capabilities on your screen at any given time.  They include Adobe Photoshop (raster image editor), Apple’s Final Cut (video editor), Autodesk Maya (3D animation application), and Luxology Modo (another 3D animation application).  Note that many of these many-hundred and multi-thousand dollar apps can be bought far more cheaply as student, “express”, or “elements” versions – and even when they are scaled down, they are still huge and suitable for professional use (although this might violate the licensing conditions of the given app).

Copycats and natural interface components.

Here are some things that are useful to note.  Competing vendors tend to copy the capabilities of each other’s apps, as well as the look and feel of their applications.  There are also trends in user interfaces, with the dark-gray-with-white lettering look popular right now.  Certain capabilities tend to lead to common interface constructs, as well, such as timelines in video editors (even though iMovie dropped its timeline), grids of thumbnail images in photo applications, and keyframe timelines in animation applications.

An interface that guides the user through a complex workflow is almost impossible to build.

It’s also true that the creators of all of these applications struggle with the same problem: How to guide a user through the complex workflow within a mega-application?  It is intractable to show how to use the application within the interface.  There are far, far too many intricate tasks that can be performed.  There are endless possibilities.  As a result, necessarily, the interfaces to these apps are static.  They give you access to these applications’ powerful functionalities, but learning to use them is entirely a different matter.

So, what can make a big difference?

What makes some of them more intuitive than others?  Is this even true, or when you compare competitor to competitor (like Autodesk Maya and Luxology Modo and Newtek Lightwave), are they pretty much all equally inscrutable?

I think there is a difference.  You can see it when an application’s designers give up on the idea of embedding how to use an application in its interface.  Rather than struggling to guide the user with “how-to” wizards, or offering up complex, canned operations, or providing mountains of built-in media content, they simply try to make the interface visually pleasing.

Yes, that can do it.

More in a later posting…

… Also, the desktop and audio capture videos of my animation class at the University of Colorado can be found at

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