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Designing Windows Application User Interfaces

Michael Weinhardt is the author of an excellent introductory article about how to design "inductive user interfaces" for Windows applications at the Microsoft Developers Network Library. For non-.Net developers only the first 2/3 of the article are interesting, down to figure 8. After that comes the technical stuff.

Inductive user interfaces lead the user along the way, rather than throwing menu and form elements at them and hoping they'll figure it out for themselves. This style of interface is particularly useful for guiding perpetual intermediates through infrequently used processes.

A more in-depth treatment of Microsoft's understanding of the inductive user interface can be found in Jan Miksovsky's much longer document Inductive UI Guidelines. The examples are drawn from Microsoft Money 2000.

A lot of Miksovsky's guidelines are common sense that user interface designers should already know, such as "Step one: Focus each page on a single task". But for some reason the designers I work with, who normally create web pages and web applications, seem to forget the basics when they are faced with producing a Windows application.

Here is a somewhat longer quote on one of my hobby horses -- telling the user up front what the task is:
Step two: State the task
Each screen should be titled with a concise and explicit statement of its primary task. This can be a direct instruction ("Select the account you want to balance") or a question you want the user to answer ("Which account do you want to balance?").

This is another simple-sounding principle that is often not practiced. For example, earlier releases of Microsoft Money had screens with titles such as Online Financial Services Manager and Balance Account. Users had to deduce the purpose and behavior of these screens from the arrangement and labels of their controls.

The title of the screen or page is very important. Whether the product uses windows, Web-style pages, dialogs, or another design, the title should not be allowed to scroll off.