mitcho Michael 芳貴 Erlewine

Linguist. Fifth year PhD student at MIT.

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The Hit List: Better Software Through Less UI

The Hit List is a to-do list app for Mac OS X with a beautiful interface and some nice features. Creator Andy Kim’s latest blog post (Better Software Through Less UI) is excellent reading for the Ubiquity community. He describes the thought process behind the design of a new clean and “frictionless” interface for specifying how tasks are repeated. After throwing out the regular combinations and templates of different input widgets, his solution was to implement a partial natural language input interface:

There is no myriad of buttons and fields to choose from. All the user has to do is directly type in what he wants.

Here are a couple other choice quotes which will ring true for the Ubiquity users and internationalization folks in the audience:

For this to work without driving the user mad, the natural language parser has to be near perfect. The last thing I want is for this to come out smelling like AppleScript.

Problems
This design isn’t perfect as it has two glaring problems. One is that the user has no easy way of discovering how complex the recurrence rules can be. This isn’t such a huge problem, but a way to solve this is to include a help button to show example rules or to include an accompanying iCal style UI to let the user setup the recurrence rule in a more typical fashion. I didn’t include these in the initial implementation though because I wanted to see how users would react to this kind of UI.
Another problem is localization. Even if I write parsers for a few more popular languages, it won’t accommodate the rest of the users in the world. Again, the solution is an accompanying traditional UI, but for now, I’m leaving it the way it is until I get some feedback.

There’s a trend in the wind, my friends: the incorporation of near-natural language for more humane interfaces.

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