Remember when computer programs were mostly uniform in appearance and similar in control?










Old-school CP/M users may recognize this screen from the Microsoft Softcard System CONFIGIO program circa 1982 (Microsoft Softcard System manual, p. 67)?  No icons, no 16 bit color, and no cute animations or talking paper clips. Just plain old consistency brought on by the limited respources of the machine (Apple II) and developers happy with the status quo.

Most software I encountered from 1980 to 1986 had menus like this...often whole hierarchies of menus, richer than the lineage of Alexander or long-dead Scottish kings. To reach obscure functionality in some business software (and especially tactical games), the user was sometimes required to make 7 or more separate menu selections - 8, 6, 7, 5, 3, 0, 9 or 1, S, 5, 2, P, 1, D. Based on my scientific study of my memories and experience in using both an Atari 800XL and an Apple //e during the 80's, I can confidently say that most software did it:

  • Appleworks. No doubt there are folks out there who remember Lissner's program by heart and can repeat menu sequences better than the Robert Frost they memorized in high-school. But it was worth it -- Appleworks transcended the material world, being more of an ethereal experience than a physical one. That and the database app had my killer list of 80's albums including the New Wave stuff and an errant ABBA album recovered from a trash bin.
  • FID and other Apple System Utilities. Who can forget FID?
  • Copy ][+, Locksmith and EDD. Locksmith would click the speaker when performing a bit-level cool was that? All of the copy programs I ran across were driven by numerical or character-based menus, or a combination of the two. As Copy ][+ evolved, the number of top-level menu choices increased to fill up most of the screen.
  • Wizardry. Wizardry dominated Apple ][ sales for months, beating out spreadsheet and other business applications, utilities, games and educational software so chances are if you remember J. J. Jackson spinning the Ghostbusters video, you played Wizardry and navigated the menus. Wasn't 9 the "Identify" command?
  • SSI tactical simulations and dungeon crawlers. I had Computer Ambush. Learning to play Computer Ambush was more difficult than freshman calculus, but it wasn't because of the menu system.

These programs were consistent in their presentation of available choices even when their functionality was different. For example, (Q) would generally dump you from the program, (S) would initiate a save, and numerical choices generally corresponded to program-specific functionality like "1 - Reconcile Accounts" or "2 - Cast Spell". It was a simple system that didn't seem to get in the way of the program and I never heard complaints from the users I hung out with. They might complain about the program ("Wizardry is *&#$ hard!"), but never about the interface ("Why should I press 9 to identify an object?").

This is not to say that experiments weren't tried. Mouse Write by Roger Wagner Systems used windows and different character-based icons to present a WYSIWYG word processor that was so slow as to be useless. No one I knew ever used it beyond showing the Commodore crowd how advanced the //e was that it could do windows like the Macintosh. No one used the thing. I have an original copy somewhere if any of you want to write the next great American novel on your //e with it. Drop me a line and it's yours.

Interfaces have evolved, often times for the worse. Microsoft Word is a great program with what must be thousands of lines of code devoted to managing the small ecosystem that is the menu. How many total items are available across all top-level menu options -- 200? So many that they developed Morphing Menus, menus that keep an eye on what you do and dynamically add and obscure choices based on your work and selection. It is a world unto itself. Has Sid Meier considered Sim-Menu, a virtual playground where menu items compete for resources and exposure, reproduce, form collectives and evolve in a hostile, user-centered world?

And with modern interfaces and windowing systems, it is much easier for a developer like myself to inflict poor UI's on innocent users. Developers are endowed with a certain bravado that instills a belief that not only does their code rock, but their interfaces are perfect. PERFECT. Interfaces don't cause productivity issues -- users do. I am as guilty as the next guy. I know just enough about what professional design folks do to know I generally stink at it. Given the lattitude of a high-resolution display, it is easy to screw up.

These days I find one or two programs that I think are easy to use and copy their layout. Wouldn't it be nice if Visual Studio 2005 had 30-40 canned UI templates? How about a UI template area online with user-submitted and Microsost-supplied templates? They have images online for Word, why not UIs?

Maybe I should go back to the menu list. It was good enough for Cat-Fur.