Customizable buttons could usher in smartphone interface nirvana

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It’s in vogue these days to complain about the horrible user interface direction that Microsoft has turned to in their Windows 10 Mobile preview and its associated apps. Most of the clever and beautiful design innovations Microsoft brought forth with Windows Phone 7 and 8 are getting thrown out. Maybe the “Metro” design language idea isn’t going to translate well between large screens, laptop screens, and small screens like Microsoft needs it to for their one-operating-system-to-rule-them-all vision for Windows 10. Or maybe Microsoft wants Android and iOS users to feel like it’s a familiar bad interface. Let’s go back in time for a minute though and remember one of Microsoft’s even earlier user interface designs.

Remember customizable toolbars? Back in the old days of computers, around the turn of the century, everything had a series of words at the top where all of the commands were categorized. If you wanted to do something related to the file, you’d click the menu that said “File”. If you wanted to edit something, you’d choose the button that had the word “Edit” on it. That was great for finding commands, until these programs started getting so many features that it became difficult to fit all of these command buttons on a 640 x 480 pixel or even 800 x 600 pixel screen. You often had to dig pretty deep through those menus to find the thing you were looking for.

The highlighted menu commands would hide themselves at first since it knows I don't use them much.

The highlighted menu commands would hide themselves at first since it knows I don’t use them much. Genius!

That’s where customizable toolbars came in! With customizable toolbars, you could create a series of one-click buttons that performed specific functions or loaded specific tools. The important thing here was that you could choose the commands you wanted to make more-available to you. In many programs, the menus and keyboard shortcuts were customizable too, and in a couple versions of Microsoft Office, the menus actually adapted to your usage patterns automatically in order to make your most-used features more accessible. That might have been a little too ahead of its time, but customizable toolbars made it so that you could fine tune each program to your specific workflow. In many cases you could show or hide text labels for the buttons as well so that you wouldn’t have to memorize weird icons and could easily understand what each of your buttons would do. Microsoft didn’t have to decide which buttons needed to be most accessible for the majority of users… You could decide which buttons needed to be most accessible to you, you could make that happen, and you could get your work done more efficiently. Hurray! Everybody’s happy!

Incidentally, Microsoft removed the customizable toolbars, menus, and shortcuts in Office 2007. Numerous 3rd party plug-ins were produced to bring back that functionality, and thankfully customization options returned in Office 2010.

In the early days of smartphones, we didn’t really have customizable menus or toolbars within the applications. As is the case today, you’re pretty much stuck with whatever the application developer decided to do. However, we did have customizable hardware buttons on our phones that we could program to have certain functions. I could choose to assign specific programs to specific buttons and then within those programs sometimes I could assign specific functions to specific hardware buttons. This was hugely advantageous especially for one-handed usage while driving a motor vehicle. I could assign one button to launch my MP3 player, and then when that program was active, all of my other buttons had functions such as next track, pause, volume up/down, etc. I didn’t even have to look at the screen!

Being able to reprogram these buttons made things so much easier.

Being able to reprogram these buttons made things so much easier.

Fast forward to 2015 and we’ve got millions of little smartphone apps that have very focused and limited functions. That’s necessary because smartphones have such small screens and generally implement a touch-only interface. That means buttons have to be big enough for your fingers and therefore functionality beyond what the developer thinks you might use most gets either completely cut out, buried behind hamburgers, or converted to cryptic icons that no one can understand.

Microsoft is currently trying to make their desktop apps for Windows 10 so flexible that they’ll scale between the small smartphone screens, medium-sized tablet screens, larger desktop PC screens, and even giant living-room and conference room screens. That’s not an easy thing to do. You’ll either have to make these programs so stripped-down of function that you can fit all of their features on the lowest-common-denominator… the smartphone screen, or you’ll have to bury functions deep within hidden menus on the smaller screens and let them surface on larger screens.

So which functions do you keep primarily available on the smaller screens? You can try to please the majority, but not everyone works the same way. A lot of people use the delete command in their email programs on smartphones all the time. I never use it because if I have to delete something, that means the rules and filters I set up on the Exchange server are not working as well as they could be. For me, I don’t need a delete button to be there at all, I need a rules editing button (which doesn’t exist on any mobile email app). Or maybe in the photos app, you only ever share your photos to Facebook. There’s no need for the Share button to bring up this big menu of share options all the time. Maybe you just need one button that shares to Facebook right away (like Windows Phone 7 could do).

Wouldn’t customizable toolbars be the perfect solution on smartphones? Windows 10 Mobile already has an app bar at the bottom of each program (usually) with a handful of persistent buttons that are always available. An ellipses symbol indicates the expansion of the app bar to show more hidden commands. In some cases, Microsoft is ALSO adding a hamburger button that hides even more hidden commands, though it really doesn’t make sense to have two hidden-command sections like that

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Outlook Mail for Windows 10 has lots and lots of hidden menus and commands.

If you look at the new Outlook Mail app on Windows 10 Mobile when composing a new email message you can expand the ellipses menu by touching the ellipses icon and then there’s a new series of sub-menus with different categories for different commands. Each one allows you to dig deeper to find more commands. Finding the thing you want to do could take up to half a dozen steps! Now that’s what I call difficult-to-use! On a desktop, of course this menu would appear differently. It would show up more like the Office Ribbon where each category had a tab and below the selected tab appeared all of the related commands. That sounds much easier to use on a desktop PC with a larger screen and I’m sure it will be.

That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have all of those features on the smartphone version of that program, but maybe they don’t all need to be there all the time. What if the app menu that appeared beneath the ellipses icon had a “Customize” command? I could move the most important toolbar buttons to their priority placement which would be most accessible on the smartphone. The settings could even sync with my other Windows devices so that if I opened the same program on a larger screen my customizations would still show priority placement for my most important commands.

I customizable interface has the potential to please all of the users all the time.

A customizable interface has the potential to please all of the users all the time.

In Office 2013 on the desktop (and many other professional grade software programs), I can customize the UI to make my most-used commands more efficient and accessible. That’s great, but really the need for a consistently customizable interface is far greater on a smartphone screen.

The common misconception is that Android is a very customizable smartphone platform, and yes you can develop and install different home screen launchers and widgets or whatnot, but you can’t fix the apps. You can’t make the Gmail app have a one-touch flag-for-follow-up button or text-labels to make the buttons easier to understand. You can’t fix Snapchat’s awful touch-and-hold interface design that blocks the visibility of the actual content you’re trying to view.

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Those app bar buttons at the bottom are screaming to be customizable.

Customizable toolbars or app-bars are probably something Microsoft should have thought of sooner. They already know from designing software in the 90’s that this is something very important for increasing productivity and efficiency. The backlash from removing it in Office 2007 should have been another clue. I’m no developer though and I’m sure it’s not easy for each app developer to write their own app bar customization interface, so really it needs to be something they can get for free… something that’s built into the operating system and just takes a matter of dropping a “customize” control button into the ellipses menu. Of course, Visual Studio would have to support it and there would need to be a way of specifying default app bar commands for each toolbar within each section of an app, but the “customize” window should be standard across all apps… the only difference being which commands are available in which groups.

Are you happy with being told what functions should be easiest to access in all of your third party apps or would you rather have the ability to make them work better for your particular workflow?

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About The Author
Adam Z. Lein
Adam has had interests in combining technology with art since his first use of a Koala pad on an Apple computer. He currently has a day job as a graphic designer, photographer, systems administrator and web developer at a small design firm in Westchester, NY. His love of technology extends to software development companies who have often implemented his ideas for usability and feature enhancements. Mobile computing has become a necessity for Adam since his first Uniden UniPro PC100 in 1998. He has been reviewing and writing about smartphones for Pocketnow.com since they first appeared on the market in 2002.Read more about Adam Lein!