Preferences User Interface

Authored by: Jonas Celebiler, Netscape Client User Interface Group
Date created: 3 March 1998
Date Last Modified:


Design Goals

Here are some of the goals that we set for ourselves when designing the Communicator 4.0 preferences user interface:

Principles and Guidelines

    Often when a user goes to the preferences they don't know exactly what they're looking for or where it will be. For example a user might have a vague notion that s/he needs to change something about their mail server settings, but not know exactly what the preference would be called or what category it would fall under. Furthermore, there are likely preferences which users won't have thought of, but when they see them, will find useful. Thus it is useful for users to be able to browse through all the existing preferences, so that they can decide which ones they want to customize. The preferences framework is therefore designed so that it is easy to browse around from one preferences panel to another.

    Avoid Technical Jargon
    We've made a concerted effort in Communicator to present all the preferences in such a way so that a user who does not know any technical jargon can understand the options. To do so, we've avoided relying on technical terms, such as acronyms. Sometimes acronyms are useful, because they enable a power user to recognize exactly what the option refers to. However, if an acronym is absolutely necessary, you should also provide enough descriptive text so that the user can understand the option without knowing the meaning of the acronym. Similarly, some terms make perfect sense to users who have had prior exposure to them, but are not understood by other users. Avoid such terms, or provide enough descriptive text so that the option can be understood without knowing the term.

Description of the Preferences User Interface Framework

The Preferences Window
The Preferences window consists of four major areas:
    1. Category scrolling list
    2. Message banner (at the top of the dialog)
    3. Preferences panel for the selected category
    4. Command buttons

    Each area is described in separate sections below.

    Category Scrolling List
    Preferences are categorized according to the part of the application they affect. The list is context sensitive so that when the preferences window is opened from the application, only those which are relevant to the application are expanded, while the other categories are collapsed.

    The panels corresponding to top level categories contain basic, frequently accessed preferences. The sub-categories contain more advanced preferences.

    Message Banner
    The message banner is located above the preferences panel. On the left is the title of the preference panel being viewed (text is bold). On the right is the message area (text is right-justified). When the user selects a category from the list, a short description appears in the message area, which explains what kind of options are available in that category.

    Preferences Panel for the Selected Category
    As the user selects a category from the scrolling list, the corresponding panel appears.

    Command Buttons
    Three buttons have been proposed for the preferences window:

    1. OK - save all changes and close the window.
    2. Cancel - do not save any changes and close the window.
    3. Help - open the Preferences Help Window; keep the preferences open.
    Button order varies across each platform. The buttons are placed in compliance with each platform's interface guidelines for button order.

Q and A

    Why Not Tabs?
    The number of preferences that exist in the product precludes the use of tabs, because it would require several rows of tabs. We feel having multiple rows of tabs offers poor usability, as clicking on a tab in a new row switches the rows around and disorients the user.

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