Simple customization

Over the past several years, there have been a lot of discussions around the OpenOffice.org/LibreOffice user interface, and most of them seem to lead to “Give us all the various UI options: toolbars, ribbons, sidebars, etc.”. It’s nice to have a flexible core and it’s always good to be able to change the UI if you don’t like it, but when a UI tries to give the user as many options as possible, it tends to end up a mess.

Options in LibreOffice (here you see less than half of the categories)
Options in AbiWord

As I see it, the best option is to develop an interface in which customization is intuitive and simple. A good example of this is the Windows Phone tiles UI. (Despite all my antipathy towards Microsoft, I do have to acknowledge that their “Metro” UI is brilliant.) A user can add tiles (shortcuts, similar to icons) from various areas of the phone (applications, contacts, websites, …), adding tiles is simple (just push a button), tiles are aligned to a grid, they look neat, uniform, are easy to organize and browse through, and, overall, working with the home screen is a very fluid and coherent experience. Compare that with Android’s UI, which sloppily combines icons and gadgets, which you can only add to your home screen through a special home screen customization dialog. Android gadgets come in various shapes and sizes and varying levels of integration with the software. You can flip through some gadgets, scroll through others, some you can input text into, and some are just read-only. It can be pretty messy, and customizing it is a pain.

I want the LibreOffice UI to be as seamless and simple as the WP Tiles UI is. I want a single way of organizing commands (currently, commands in menus, toolbars, and “customization” dialog are all categorized differently). I want a single place that houses all commands (the menu bar seems ideal for that). I also want simple customization — being able to drag and drop commands from menus onto the toolbar, or from the “ellipsis menu” (below) onto the toolbar or vice versa.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t have ribbons or sidebars or toolbars to house commands, just that we shouldn’t overwhelm the user with options or weigh down the suite with a ton of optional half-baked UI choices. Let’s shoot for quality, simplicity, and intuitiveness, and leave the alternatives for extensions.

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Note: I’d really like a Lotus Symphony-like sidebar as another option for housing commands, either built-in or as a featured extension. I’m not sure, though, how exactly to organize it so that it works the same way as the context bar and fizz (where you can add and remove commands to your liking), but doesn’t look messy or disorganized. If I come up with something, I’ll post a mock-up. (Feel free to take the Citrus UI svg and mock something up too…)

2 thoughts on “Simple customization

  1. I find your suggestions for Libreoffice/Openoffice.org to be interesting. As a person who has started using the former and has used the later since around 1.0 I agree that the layout of both programs can be very confusing. I read one of your newer blog posts which had a link to the program Byword for the Mac. I was recently using Libreoffice and thought of how that program could work with toolbars which just hide themselves while they are not in use. I think that having a full screen mode like in Firefox where only the main page itself is visible would be a great feature to implement in future versions.

    1. I agree — a full-screen, distractionless UI would be a great option.

      Now that a number of operating systems give preference to “immersive” full-screen UIs (iOS, Android, even Mac OS X Lion), it’s possible that LibreOffice will gain such a UI in the future.

      By the looks of it, full-screen apps in Windows 8 will have all of the commands hidden by default, but, if the choice of programming language remains at HTML5 and JavaScript, I doubt that will be a road LibO will want to take. Maybe something will sprout out of WebODF, though.

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