Size Matters


There are a lot of messy desks in the world. But I’d guess that desks are becoming less messy these days, especially compared to the days when computers didn’t exist, paper was plentiful, and smoking at your office desk was the norm.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

Desks are nice and big though compared to the average computer screen, and it’s easy to push stuff out of the way for later and make space for what’s important now. Or if I want, I can lay stuff out easily if I need to look at lots of things at once.

Although computer screens are getting bigger, and we’re not too far away from having giant monitors that cover our desks, most of us still use screens that are only big enough to display one or two applications at a time.

But screen sizes aren’t just getting bigger. A lot of screens now fit in our pockets.

Tiny little Sheilas everywhere. In fact, mobile is so pervasive that even Google are advocating creating web applications for mobile first.

So how do we cater for such a wide range of screen sizes, from mobiles to tablets, laptops, desktops and even 50-inch HD TVs being used as monitors? Developing the same application multiple times, potentially in multiple programming languages is annoying and expensive.

Well a new CSS web page layout technique using media queries seems quite promising in making things easier. It allows developers to create pages that respond to changes in the width of the browser window, and is being termed responsive web design.

A good example of a site that uses media queries to full effect is Try opening it and dragging to increase or decrease the width of the window. Notice how stuff appears and disappears based on the width.

If it’s not working for you and you’re using Internet Explorer then please don’t.

We, the people of Earth, at some point in the past thought it a good idea to adopt standardised paper sizes and it makes a lot of sense to have a range of standard screen sizes too. Measured in displacement units (in Europe, we’re keen on the metric system) rather than pixels, which vary in size from display to display.

But just because we happen to run an application on a screen of given size, it doesn’t mean that the application should assume it needs to use all of the space available to it. The reason I think a lot of people find mobile apps great is because of how simple and usable they are. With limited screen estate on mobile apps, and it being hard to type and fill forms in, functionality is stripped down until only the important and frequently used actions are available.

Why should mobile apps only run on mobiles? Applications should be designed to fit the available window space rather than the available screen space. I can think of many times while sat at my laptop when displaying 5-6 small windows all running mobile apps would have been less hassle than having a single maximised browser open with six tabs.

As screen sizes increase, applications simply won’t need to take up the full screen, and being able to resize and lay windows out will become very important.

And let’s face it, there’s a lot of room for improvement in this area.

Why, for example, would I opt for opening six tabs so that only one tab  is visible at a time and then proceed to  flick repeatedly between the tabs like some sort of madman?

Because we’re still using computers where users are forced to drag a window from its title bar to position it, and then move to the bottom right of the window to resize it. Oh and then move back up to the title bar to nudge it a bit more. And so on. Six times.

Praise the Lord that in Windows 7 it’s possible to resize windows from any corner. Not that I realised until I started writing this post.

And Windows 7 also has some neat features for resizing and positioning windows automatically e.g. fill half the screen or the entire screen by dragging to the side or top of the desktop. A very powerful feature and a real novelty. I’m a PC by trade, not a Mac, but I hear Apple have had similar functionality for years. Maybe Microsoft Googled for it.

Even then, these improvements are just the tip of the iceberg. Simple actions to move, resize and switch between applications should place minimum cognitive load on users and shouldn’t distract from completing the task at hand. You could say it should feel as easy as moving around paper on a desk…


2 Responses to “Size Matters”

  1. There’s a reason that mobile apps fill the screen with a simple app that’s completely focussed on the main things the user wants to get done: they are task focussed. Playing devil’s advocate and applying the same logic to the desktop suggests we should have task focussed full-screen apps. I’m not sure if that’s something you’re advocating or not :-)

  2. It depends on the purpose of the app naturally, but I’d suggest that for certain mobile apps which are cut-down versions of full desktop apps, and where many users have a preference for the mobile app, that the mobile appeal is due to simplicity, and that the simplicity is part due to size restrictions forcing designers to make the apps more task focussed. So lack of space has helped to increase usability.

    Whichever way you look at it, I’d like to have the option of running simpler and more task focussed mobile apps on the desktop regardless of the size they assume. Given that I’m happy to use them on a mobile sized screen, running them at that size on a desktop wouldn’t be a problem, and given that some mobile apps are quite utility-like, I’d probably run lots of them simultaneously. That’s what led me to discuss window layout awkwardness.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: