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

Wednesday, September 03, 2008  

More Yearbook Photos

Last week, I showed you a few screenshots from versions 2 and 3 of Accordance. Today, I want to look at the interface changes in versions 5 and 6. While version 4 of Accordance offered powerful new features, there were only very minor changes to the interface. The major interface changes took place with versions 5 and 6.

A teenage boy in the midst of puberty finds himself going through radical changes. He may grow dramatically taller (that never happened for me, but I hear it happens for some people!), but he may then become awkward and lanky. One minute he may sound like Barry White, and the next he'll sound like Shirley Temple! He experiences newfound physical strength, but it's often the strength of a bull in a china shop.

Version 5 was kind of like Accordance's puberty stage. In many respects, it was one of the most feature-packed upgrades we ever released, and it included some long-needed interface enhancements, but it also introduced new problems and exacerbated old ones.

In this screenshot, you see a Search window from version 5. In version 5, we finally got rid of the Mode button and replaced it with radio buttons for switching between Word and Verse searches. This provided much better visual feedback as to which mode you happened to be in. We also used color backgrounds for the windows themselves to help the user distinguish which type of resource he was looking at (text, tool, parallel, etc.). Again, we were trying to solve the problem of window clutter, and we thought the color coding of windows might help the user more quickly distinguish a search window from a tool window. The color coding of windows didn't look too bad in OS 9, but when we released an OS X version of Accordance 5, the colors caused all kinds of problems and looked really out of place.

The same was true of icons. Version 5 was the first version of Accordance with icon buttons on the New Window and Amplify palettes. Until then, we had only had text buttons, and some users felt that there wasn't enough visual distinction among buttons. So we developed icons which wouldn't necessarily have won any design awards, but which weren't bad by OS 9 standards. Granted, we had a hard time coming up with coherent symbols for statistical details like the Analysis, Plot, and Table, but the system of using scrolls to represent texts and hardback books to represent tools worked reasonably well. But then we transitioned to OS X, which features much more sophisticated icons, and again a new interface improvement suddenly looked dated.

With Accordance 6, we decided to take a hard look at every aspect of the Accordance interface, reevaluating it according to the changing interface standards of OS X, and looking for ways to solve long-existing problems such as the proliferation of windows. At the same time, we wanted to preserve the strengths of the Accordance interface, such as its central focus on the text of the Bible, the ability to "amplify" seamlessly from one resource to another, etc.

The first thing we did with version 6 was to add the Workspace window, which keeps all your Accordance windows neatly organized as tabs within a single window. This finally solved the problem of window clutter in a way which was clean and simple.

Next we looked at ways we could reduce visual clutter and confusion. The first thing we did was to consolidate the New Window and Amplify palettes. These two similar-looking palettes with identical-looking buttons were used for two different purposes. The New Window palette was used to open a module in a new window, while the Amplify palette was used to select a module to be searched for a selection of text. Yet having two separate palettes with buttons for accessing the same modules was confusing, especially to new users. Our solution was to combine the two palettes into one Resource palette, which could be used to open a new module if there was no text selected, or amplify to a module if text had been selected. A modifier key (originally command, but later changed to control) could be used to override the amplify behavior even if there was a selection of text somewhere.

With respect to the icons on the palette, we decided we needed professional help. No, not that kind of professional help! I mean the professional help of the artists at the IconFactory. They did a beautiful job of creating true OS X icons.

Another thing we did was to move controls which only affected certain windows off of the palette and onto the windows themselves. For example, the icons for adding a new text, reference tool, or user notes pane to the Search window had previously been located on the New Window palette. If you didn't have an active Search window, these buttons could not be used. The same was true of the Analysis, Plot, and Table buttons which were so hard to represent with an icon. They were only usable if you had performed a search in a Search window, so it made sense to take them off the palette and locate those features on the Search window itself.

With respect to the redesign of the Search window, we tried to make it less intimidating to the new user by offering better explanations of what each control was for. Rather than having three unlabeled pop-up menus along the top of the window, we left only one pop-up (the search text pop-up), the Search for Words and Verses radio buttons, and the argument entry box. The Range and Field pop-up menus, along with the Add Context pop-up, we moved into a More Options section which could remain closed when not in use. We also added a natural language explanation of what the Range and Field pop-up menus are for. We did the same for the number of hits and verses, which had previously been displayed as an unlabeled number and fraction.

The redesign of the interface in Accordance 6 extended far beyond anything I can detail here. Every dialog box was carefully redesigned to make them more readable. The menus were reorganized to make it easier to find things. Windows were reorganized to make them more visually inviting.

With every change, we sought to reduce the complexity of the interface for the new user, without making advanced features harder to find or access. We sought to make the interface aesthetically appealing without overemphasizing eye-candy. Ultimately, we tried to address the weaknesses of the existing interface without abandoning its considerable strengths.

With version 6, we came out of the awkward adolescent stage of version 5, and paved the way for further improvements in subsequent versions.

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