Sunday, May 15, 2011

Conjure Design Principles: Consistency and Colors

Conjure Design Principle #1 Consistency Makes Things Easy
Part 1 of a continuing column on design principles behind Conjure's unique interface. 

Colors and Color picking in Conjure 4.5
A new feature in Conjure 4.5 is the Colors window. I know, big deal, it's a window with colors in it. But more thought goes into this kind of thing than most people realize. In this case, there were some design decisions made that I hope everyone likes. One of the constant goals of Conjure is to keep things as simple as possible, without compromising power. 

A recurring theme among beta testers' reports is that it's hard to set the color of things, or know where to go to set the color of things. 

Der Problemo...
There are too many settings in the info window as it is. So to set the color of something, you have to select it, open the info window, scan it until you find the item that most closely describes  the thing you want to change, then change it. For colors, this means clicking a button that opens another window (the Cocoa Color picker). That's a lot of steps, for something you probably do often. And that last set of steps, where you have to figure out where to set it, hurts the rest of the UI design as well, since every object has different attributes (stroke, fill, text) that *can* have different color settings. 

There are four different color settings you can choose there. Four. Five, if you include changing from a gradient to a color.  Well, let's see what the other guys do. After all, we're after consistency here, right? 

Photoshop is probably the most used product among the digital artists who use Conjure. So when I'm faced with a 'how should this work' question, I usually include it in the list of other apps' behaviors I should study. 

In this case though, they suffer from a similar problem. There are several ways to set the color for any object or property. Even though I've been using it since it shipped with a crappy scanner in the late 80's, I still forget where to find things in its UI. So having travelled to this land, I have decided to leave it, for greener pastures...

Something a lot of people don't know about iWeb and me is that Conjure originally had a spinoff clone, called Landscape. Landscape was my plan for a web page creation tool. I actually named early prototypes 'iWebb", which I thought was a hilarious play on words. Until iWeb came out, featuring 90% of the ideas I thought were original, in iWebb. Oh well. But occasionally I think of adding something to Conjure, only to find it's already in iWeb (like line elevation angles), and it makes me wonder what the hell Apple thinks iWeb actually does. Seriously? Why would someone need to know the elevation of a line in a web page builder? Anyway, they usually have good ideas, and since their target audience is basically the same as Conjure's (for different reasons), I at least try to be consistent. 

Unfortunately in this case, iWeb is consistent with my *mistake*, and does not present an acceptable solution. See, they crammed everything into one central 'info' window. The biggest difference is that their window doesn't actually change based on the context, as Conjure's does. They expect you to click the tab to change it. Well that's a few steps back from where I am now. So, no thanks.

The solution, as I see it, is to have a centralized 'colors' window. And that's it. No other objects should mention colors at all. That way, the user always knows where to go to set the color. For anything. Color options that don't make sense for the current selection would be inactive. Simple as that. 

A single Colors window would move all of this color related stuff to one place. That would also help on the programming side, because it's one less set of controls I constantly have to remember to update. And while I'm at it, I can axe the text label color control (which no one notices anyway), and the redundant "Line Settings" text. 

Now, I'm not a fan of the standard MacOS color pickers. At some point, Conjure will likely have its own color picker for that reason. When I get around to that, having to do that for only one object sounds a lot better than setting it up to work in a dozen different areas. 

When the next beta of Conjure 4.5 goes out, it will have the unified color window in it. Please let me know what you think! And if you want to be a member of the beta team, send an email to me at, and let me know!


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