Give me my tools and back off

December 3, 2008

A good UI can balance a lot of contradictions. For instance, it should be discoverable – the user must be able to find that it’s there and what it does. But also, it should be invisible – a good UI steps aside and gives the user what he needs without making a big deal of itself.

Often, games get this balance very right. Partially that’s because the task is defined by the game itself, and partially because tutorials are something games do well and software does poorly.

Today’s thing-that-gets-it-right is a Auditorium, a silly Flash game with an elegant, discoverable UI that gives you exactly what you need and no more.


In my opinion, good user experience should feel like playing a game. Your graphics editor, programming toolkit, and web browser should be able to mirror that intense concentration you feel stalking a kill in Halo. If that sounds far-fetched, think about how you work in a state of flow. Like in a game, you lose track of time and are focused on your task – not your tools. In flow, either you’ve mastered your tools, or your tools are well-designed, or both. I think of flow as the goal in many user experience problems. For every UI design decision you make, you can ask if it helps induce flow for your user: Does it make your user’s tasks easier? Are the user’s available choices clear? Does it present the right balance of freedom and direction?


4 Responses to “Give me my tools and back off”

  1. Mark Tomczak Says:

    This game is pretty incredible. And interestingly enough, this is about the third or fourth independent reference to it that I’ve seen today; it’s really taking off.

    I think this balance of the needs of a UI is pretty spot-on. One UI feature of web browsers that I used to use regularly and have since essentially ceased to use is bookmarks. Bookmarks seem to me to be fairly discoverable, but they fall down in terms of invisibility.

    I essentially used bookmarks for two things: (1) to provide quick access to sites I visit daily and (2) to retain a link to an article or bit of esoteric internet content that I want to visit later. The problem with bookmarks is that they are a poor solution to both cases. For (1), once I get more than about nine or so, I can’t remember where they live in my bookmark menu so it’s faster to just start typing the URL. And with the advent of smart address bars that work, I only need type a few characters to reach my destination. While I usually prefer a GUI for most activities, this is one case where the text interface has really beaten the menu-or-toolbar interface for me.

    In terms of (2), I now use an average of two computers a day (one at work and one at home). Browser bookmarks again fail me here because they aren’t shared between the computers transparently without some additional (in my experience, irritating to use) software. So I’ll bookmark something at work and not have it available at home. These days, I just use a Google Notebook ( to retain these links; since it can be installed as a Firefox extension that perches in my bottom bar, it’s convenient enough.

    So for me, bookmarks have been replaced by the address bar, notebook, and (to some extent) the nine-tile “most frequently visited” new-page in Google Chrome. It has the advantage of minimizing the amount of information it serves and serving it extremely clearly. Meanwhile, I imagine bookmarks are something I’ll tell my children about some day while describing the Old Internet to them. I’m sure the story will involve snow, hills that defy Euclidean geometry, and four-byte IP addresses.

  2. Yep. Most programs need to do way more backing-off. I was surprised to find that the new default for Evince (the PDF reader in GNOME) was to not show *any* toolbar or status bar, and just show you the menu and the PDF–but it works. There’s pretty much *no* UI, and it’s nice.


  3. Also, a program is guaranteed to be unable to back off if it does too much. Single-function programs (like Evince, or a video game) can get out of your face because interaction with them is very straightforward and doesn’t need a lot of UI.


  4. Sam Says:

    I think there’s definitely a virtue to having applications as complex as they need to be in order to achieve their stated objectives.

    There’s also something of a culture of certain companies adding superfluous features to an application in order to sell you a new version.

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