Monday, 25 January 1999
Why are toolbars so popular? That question has kept my mind busy this week. A few answers:
The human mind is excellent in recognizing graphics, patterns, faces, pictures, etceteras. That's why charts and diagrams are so popular. "A picture says more than a thousand words" Toolbar cut, copy, paste en undo The buttons for 'cut', 'copy', 'paste' and 'undo' are a simple example. Pictures are recognizable. The human eye recognizes a picture a lot easier than text. Road signs have pictures, and for a good reason.
On screen
Alan Cooper, The Essentials of User Interface Design Alan Cooper describes the differences between "Recall & recognition" in his great book "About Face, The Essentials of User Interface Design" .
"Recognition" is much easier than "Recall". A toolbar is visual on screen. A question such as "In which menu was it?" is obsolete for a toolbar. The user does not have to remember the location of the toolbar. The screen reduces the memory load for the user.
Most programs offer a textual alternative, like a pull down menu. Toolbar cut, copy, paste en undo A pulldown menu is relatively cumbersome for the user:
  1. Move the mouse to the menu bar
  2. Click tio open the pull down.
  3. Move to the desired choice in the pull down
  4. Click to select the choice.
That's a four-step process. A toolbar just takes two steps, move the mouse and click. Shortcuts, like Ctrl+V, are for high frequency functions only by experienced users.
Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday things Every day things must be simple. So simple that you don't even have to think about them. That is one of the fundamental design principles described by Donald Norman in his classic "The Design of Everyday things", a must for every designer.
Doesn't a toolbar have disadvantages at all? Of course it does, the law of preservation of misery applies here too:
  1. Icons on a toolbar are not always self explanatory.
    It takes time to learn the meaning, usually a short initial effort. Pull downs are easier to learn, which makes them good for low frequency functions. An inexperienced user can explore all menu options easily.
  2. Pull downs continuously claim a little screen real estate, even when not used. It's just a little space, but continuously. For complex applications, with lots of functionality, this can be a drawback. The toolbars in MS Word for example, offer an abundance of functionality. Lotus Word Pro solves this problem by making toolbars context sensitive. Only the relevant toolbars are visual. A pull down requires more space, but only on demand.
Reader, my mailbox is open for comments, discussions and GUI design questions.

Till next week,