October, 2006

  • The Old New Thing

    Why does Windows hide keyboard accelerators and focus rectangles by default?


    The release of Windows 2000 introduced a new setting: "Hide underlined letters for keyboard navigation until I press the Alt key," which defaults on for most Western languages. What's the story behind this setting?

    I still have the rationale from the user interface designer who introduced this feature. Here's a redacted copy:

    To support our goal of greater simplicity, we plan to suppress keyboard navigation indicators by default. Don't be frightened...

    The idea is to reduce visual noise in Windows, namely focus indicators and access key underlines in menus and windows. Aesthetically, these things are distracting and intimidating. Functionally, they're only useful when you're navigating by keyboard. They don't add significant value when you're just using the mouse. In fact, they're often redundant.

    Why now? Every good thing must start somewhere. Windows will look cleaner and simpler.

    What's so bad about the way things are? Access key underlines are largely underutilized and are often redundant with Ctrl+ shortcuts within the same menu. There's no indication that you have to type the Alt key to use these shortcuts. Plus, it's just odd to see characters underlined within text all over your display. Focus rectangles lack graphic integrity, and they're often redundant with the highlight on selected items or the default button.

    Of course, the keyboard indicators will come back when there is any demonstration of keyboard navigation by the user. The indicators will appear and disappear appropriately. Finally, if you don't like the behavior at all, you can disable it from the Display control panel.

    For what it's worth, this is one of the things I [the interface designer] came to Microsoft to fix.

    An additional point not mentioned in the original rationale is that with the rise of the web browser as the primary use of a computer, users have increasingly been conditioned to treat underlined text as "Click me" rather than "Use me in conjunction with the Alt key to activate this item".

    The thing about seeing randomly-underlined letters all over the screen is a point many technically-inclined people miss. To a typical user, all these indicators scream "Entering a propeller-head zone!" and "You are not smart enough to use this computer."

    What does frustrate me about this setting, though, is not its design but its implementation. Using the arrow keys to navigate a pop-up menu doesn't appear to count as a "demonstration of keyboard navigation by the user", which is particularly frustrating since you can't use the Alt key to make that demonstration, for the Alt key dismisses the menu! To see what the keyboard accelerators are for a pop-up menu, you have to find a way to cause the menu to pop up based on a keyboard action (usually hitting Shift+F10 when focus is on the appropriate element). This is often harder than it sounds.

  • The Old New Thing

    You can invent new adjectives too


    It's not just verbs and nouns.

    I just saw the adjective "planful" in a piece of email.

    I don't know what that is supposed to mean.

    Neither do dictionary.com or Encarta.

  • The Old New Thing

    There's a reason why envelopes have backs


    For some reason, people are upset that I don't have hard data for the cost difference between "slow" and "fast" mode enumeration. I already did a back-of-the-envelope calculation that showed that fast mode reduces the total time to enumerate the items in a folder from five minutes to two seconds. That's what's so great about back-of-the-envelope calculations: They let you make decisions without actually having to implement every possible solution.

    Some quick estimation shows that using slow mode enumeration would be 200 times slower than fast mode. Does it really matter whether the speed-up is 195.1231 times or even 103.4761 times? Even if the estimate were off by an order of magnitude, a 20-fold speed-up is still worth it.

    Imagine if people had to carry out experiments for every possible optimization (both before and after) to prove that it was worthwhile.

    "Could you please deliver these letters?"

    "Sure, here let me grab them."

    "Why are you doing that? Why don't you take one letter at a time?"

    "Um, because it'll be faster to take all of them at once so I don't have to keep coming back here."

    "Do you have any hard data to support that? I'm not going to believe you until you show me some hard data."

  • The Old New Thing

    If only he'd known to offer to back up their PC instead


    I love it when two unrelated stories conspire to create amusement beyond what each one provided separately.

    We start with this report from BoingBoing of a man on Craigslist who offered to perform computer maintenance and repair in exchange for second base. (For those not familar with North American high school sexual slang—and that includes me—I refer you to this schedule of bases on Wikipedia, accompanied by a disturbingly elaborate list of secondary metaphors.)

    That story provided momentary amusement, but it was subsequently recalled by this unrelated story of a man who was ruled to have been overcharged for breast fondling. If only he'd known to offer to back up their PC instead.

  • The Old New Thing

    Any similarity to actual German or Swedish words is purely coincidental


    Earlier this year, the Advertising Standards Authority (the UK's advertising watchdog) ruled that the use of umlauts in the name of kitchen furniture manufacturer Möben is purely decorative and not intended to mislead consumers into believing that the company is German or Scandinavian. The fact that the name is only one letter away from both the German word ("Möbel") and Swedish word ("möbel") for "furniture" is not intended to mislead but rather is simply a coincidence.

    This appears to be a variation of the heavy metal umlaut. (Not to be confused with a diaeresis. I used to use diaereses, but you mocked me so I stopped.) It troubles me to see the umlaut being treated as a decorative element, for it dooms another generation of language students to treating umlauted and non-umlauted vowels as just typographical variations of each other rather than being distinct vowels with different pronunciations. An "ö" is not an "o" with dots over it any more than a "Q" is an "O" with a squiggly tail. Treating umlauts as just decorative dots is sort of the German version of the tattoo consisting of meaningless Chinese characters that "look pretty".

  • The Old New Thing

    Does a dual-core processor count as one or two for licensing purposes?


    Now that dual-core processors are gaining in popularity, there has been some confusion over whether a dual-core processor counts as one or two. This discussion of multicore processor licensing may clear things up. The short answer is that a dual-core processor still counts as one processor.

    For example, Windows XP Professional supports up to two processors. If you have two dual-core processors, Windows XP will use them both, for a total of four processing units. And if you enable hyperthreading on those processors, you get eight virtual processors out of the deal! Similarly, Windows XP Home supports one processor, but you if your one processor is a dual-core processor, then it will use both cores.

    Now, I'm not so lucky as to actually have a dual-core machine, so I'm just taking it on faith that the linked article is correct. I haven't been able to run experiments to confirm.

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