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News, How-tos, and assorted Views on Accordance Bible Software.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006  

Who Sets the Standard?

As I was writing Friday's post, in which I argued that there are objective criteria for judging the usability of a software program or operating system, I realized that I might be asking for trouble. After all, the implication of what I wrote was that there are quantifiable ways in which Accordance is easier to use than other programs . . . regardless of what people are "used to." When you make claims like that, you're just inviting people to remind you that you don't necessarily have it all together.

Sure enough, we got several comments about ways in which the Accordance interface can be improved. Thankfully, all of the criticisms were relatively mild and thoroughly constructive. They each raised interesting perspectives which I hope to address in future posts, but for now, I want to focus on the last comment we received. This user expressed frustration at the fact that he could not rename tabs in an Accordance workspace by simply control-clicking on the tab. This, he explained, is how one renames tabs in Microsoft Excel, and he described this behavior as a "de facto standard" which Accordance should observe:

Accordance does a few things in its own way, where other popular and current non-bible software has set a de facto standard. Of course Accordance predates some of this software, but that doesn't invalidate the de facto standard.

I would like to see Accordance look around more at the current software environment of common productivity applications, and incorporate common methods for user interaction.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that we sometimes do things in our own way, but we do look around at other software programs when deciding how to incorporate similar interface conventions. When we decided to add the tabbed Workspace window, we looked closely at Safari and other browsers for ideas as to how our tabs should behave. Browsers, of course, do not even let you rename a tab, since the name of the tab is dictated by the Title of the web page displayed in that tab. Control-click on a tab in Safari, and you'll just get a contextual menu with no option to rename the tab.

Now, we admittedly did not look at Microsoft Excel. I'll let you in on a little secret: not many of us even own Microsoft Office, so programs like Word and Excel are not generally the first place we look for interface ideas. :-) If there's some "de facto standard" set by one of those programs, we're not likely to know about it unless you, our users, tell us about it.

In Accordance, we've always included an option to rename a window, so we extended our existing menu item (Window menu-->Set submenu-->Name...) and keyboard shortcut to apply to tabs as well as separate windows. In version 7, we're adding contextual menus throughout the Accordance interface, so you'll soon be able to control-click on a tab to access the Set Tab Name... menu item (among other options). That doesn't sound quite the same as the Excel control-click feature, but it should at least make life easier for those who are used to the Excel approach.

Now, why am I spending so much time answering an innoccuous suggestion about how to improve a minor feature? Partly because I wanted to assure you that we do look around at existing interface conventions before we implement similar ones. Truth be told, it's also partly because I wanted to make that wisecrack about Microsoft not being our primary source of interface inspiration. (What can I say, my Mac biases run deep!) But the real reason I'm spending so much time on this is that there are more significant examples of how Accordance works differently than other programs—including a few programs which are unquestionably "standards."

Take Google's search syntax for example. If you enter a search like son of God, Google will return pages which have either "son" or "God" (the "of" is ignored as too common). To search for a phrase in Google, you need to enclose it in quotes. In Accordance, if you enter son of God, Accordance will search for the phrase "son of God." Accordance doesn't require you to enclose a phrase in quotes; just enter it as a phrase. Neither does Accordance assume that a series of words separated by spaces should trigger some kind of Boolean search. If you want to do a Boolean search, the search commands are all accessible via the Search menu, they can be inserted using keyboard shortcuts, or they can simply be typed in. We've always seen this as a more intuitive way to construct a search than Google's method which has since become the standard, and we're not about to make things less intuitive just so we can be like most web search engines.

That thinking may run a little counter to the "something is usable if it behaves exactly as expected" dictum. But then again, maybe it doesn't. I think our type-a-phrase-to-search-for-it approach is exactly what your average non-computer-literate person would expect. It's only those who have been trained to expect something else who really have to adjust to it; and even then it's not that big an adjustment. On balance, this is one "standard" to which we'll respectfully choose not to adhere.

In software development, we're always adjusting to changing interface standards and user expectations. We do our best to observe standard interface conventions, but there are times when we feel strongly that there's a better way. In those cases, we're not ashamed to "Think Different."

I believe the version 7.0 change to rename a tab will be exactly the same as how Excel handles it currently. At least in Office 2003 for Windows that is how it works. You right-click and a contextual menu pops up with different options like copy, cut, rename, delete, &c. That should make Excel users feel right at home.

Personally, I'm hoping for iWork '07 to contain Numbers (or some such named spreadsheet app) since there isn't a real great alternative to Excel on Mac, and one reason I bought a Mac was to get away from the tyrant in Redmond.

Will version 7 of accordance be universal binary?

The initial release of version 7 will not be Universal Binary, though it runs well in Rosetta. We will be porting the code, but couldn't wait to get the new features out to you while we work on the port.

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