“What advocates of ‘theme’ or ‘skinning’ software fail to realize is that OS consistency is only truly realized when an entire platform is universally similar. As computers continue to dominate an increasing number of daily activities, it is ever more important that operating systems adopt the most idealistic standards to allow their users to be as productive as possible. In the world of user interface design, consistency is king. A consistent user interface not only can make a product more intuitive, but also can help users be significantly more productive. Unfortunately, the latest trend in ‘user-friendliness’ is allowing users to modify the interface of an operating system extensively by applying ‘skins’ or ‘themes.'” Read the interesting analysis on the phenomenon of skinning at OSOpinion.
OS Themes Are Only Skin Deep
2002-02-07 Editorial 33 Comments
when it’s at an OS level.
It has to be done well (see the Ge list, and the idea of theming parts of a component, instead of the whole component, i.e. a BButton is made up of a pressableborder, a text field etc), and they have to export stuff for other applications to use (like colours), and just as importently, applications have to use what has been exported.
The problems at the moment are not that OSes are running towards themes, but that indivdual apps are (I blame WinAMP
I agreed. That’s one of the reason why I am sticking to Win2K instead of rushing onto the WinXP bandwagon. What I dislike most about the WinXP skinning technology is that when you are finally with the visual setting of you Windows, i.e. positions, sizes, etc., and started exploring other skins, everything started going screwy, e.g. windows become too large, or out of display area. To me, WinXP’s skinning technology is at best “beta” standard, and knowing Microsoft, I have a very strong suspicion that this is exactly what they have in mind or are trying yo do, i.e. to “test” the market response. If it takes off, “let’s improve it in the next version”. Just look at what happen to Active Desktop, or does anyone still remember???
I agree that skinning can confuse new users and that OS’s and apps should ship with a default, consistent UI, but the author of this article seems to be saying that since the ‘experts’ have determined skins are bad, that people should listen to them and not use skins. What’s his problem? I think this is completely up to the user, whether skins help them or hinder them and whether to use them or not. Obviously a large number of people find that skins work fine for them (linux WMs, winamp, xmms, windowblinds) so he is saying they should stop just because some ‘experts’ decided that the skins were messing them up? seem odd to anyone else?
Even before reading the complete article the name of http://www.jefraskin.com“>Jef was in my mind, the OsNews headline was the exact summary of what Raskin has been saying about GUIs a long time ago, absolutely nothing new. Raskin explains himself better.
I think GUI consistency is obviously a good thing, but so it is considering the computer user as an adult that may do as she/he pleases. PCs have always been opened to hacking, not Macs, so pìck your posion and stop that no brainer, and start producing.
Looks like IBM and Apple have changed uniforms, now they are the square ones. Or as Register Andrew Orlowski points out:
“4. http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/39/23531.html“>Obey : Which is where the free-thinking, free-wheeling image Apple has promoted really collapses. Apple has decided that the individualists who use the software can’t change a thing about it. You can’t even decide not to display no desktop wallpaper, let alone replace the default shell.”
I used to read OsOpinion more often but honestly, lately they are trying too hard to explain the Mac, here we have the BSD week, there it’s like the Mac year. This week is about why you can’t skin the Mac.
From the article:
“For this reason, skinning must be halted at the OS level by manufacturers through any means necessary if a given platform is to benefit from the advantages associated with a consistent U.I.”
For “halted”, substitute “implemented”, and add “and themeable” after “consistent”.
Hmm, maybe I should subscribe Glass Elevator after all.
The problem with this idea is that it assumes all people are the same, work the same way, and therefore will be most efficient using the same interface.
If we’re talking about a machine that’s going to be used by many different people (say in an internet cafe, or a tourist information terminal in an airport) then I agree that consistency accross installations is important.
But if we’re talking about a machine that is primarily going to be used by one person then they should be able to set it up to suit how they work. The look and more importantly the feel of the system (abd also applications) should be adaptable to match their needs.
I have to heartily concur that skinnable apps are a mistake. Skinnable OS’s are fine, by me. I like the progress KDE and Gnome have shown in this aspect. What I would like to see is a truly unified theme model that can be configured easily by the end user for at least color scheme. Mosfet’s Liquid for KDE is a good example of this.
At a professional level, there shouldn’t be any surprises if a sysad sits down to troubleshoot a user’s problem. I’ve seen some horrible Winamp skins that, if they were taken to their conclusion at the OS level, would make the machine almost impossible to use. There should be an easy method for an admin to disable the themes and redraw the windows with a single keystroke.
Contrary to popular belief, Mac OS X is skinnable, so Steve Jobs has failed in stopping such abilities. I have just downloaded a ‘NeXT’ theme, skin or whatever you want to call it. I haven’t implemented it yet, still debating if I want to. You can also skin iTunes and there are some wacky skins out there for it, my personal favorite is ‘Heavy Metal’. So don’t believe anyone who has it can’t be done… helk there is a whole site dedicated to it!
themes and skins have nothing to do with usability, although they can hinder adoption of a new interface by an old user, for example: winXP looks different, so a lot of people will be uncomfortable using it for a while.
what i hate is the winamp vs. jofol skinning: winamp is just a glorified picture, all the buttons are always in the same place, etc… jofol allows the buttons and displays to be resized and replaced, allowing more innovative skins. (but obviously this confuses the unwary user)
the same thing should be done in GUIs: make everything scriptable, like Smalltalk, then if i want to have title bars on the top, like MacOS, its a few hacks… if i want title bars on the bottom of each window, i can do that too. this is the combination of system-wide source availability and dynamic compilation, something i hope will still be in amigaDE when it is /finally/ released…
I wholeheartedly agree with the point of the article. If you just view the computer as a tool (which it is) and not a toy, themes are a complete and utter waste of time and resources.
Themes that change the colours of things are OK, but themes that change the shape, size, appearance and location of controls have NO VALUE whatsoever. They just make the system unuseable by anyone else but the usual user. The also prevent a user from becoming 100% effective in using the GUI, because they are always tempted to change things, which subtly changes the way they work, and makes them relearn how to use the interface.
Like it or not, the BeOS GUI was the best there is. No customization of any controls. That is absolutely the way to do it. In fact there should be APIs that enforce the GUI rules so that every developer can concentrate on the functionality of the application rather than the appearance.
Why do you think cars have the same basic control layout for every car? It would be stupid for one car to have a steering wheel, the next to have a joystick, and the next to have steering rudder pedals. The whole notion of configurable GUIs (other than colour) is ridiculous.
If only we had Liquid for GTK. Or at least Liquid for Qt-only based apps (w/o KDE integration). Then Opera would work with it.
Or what about KDE/Qt wrappers for GTK basesd apps? A quick recompile, and voila. Then we could say goodbye to those clunky file dialogs, etc.
Here I go again, quoting my favourite quote:
Avoid rampant customisation.
* Customisation has the effect of delegating part of the interface design to the user. They may or may not be qualified to do this. Users are not usability experts; we are. If a user can, by a few judicious choices, really improve the interface, we probably have done a poor job. Most users, if given a reasonable interface, just want to get their jobs done.
* The user must not only learn how to use a new application, but also how to customise it.
* Extra features add to the size of the software and the documentation.
Source: Believe it or not, developer.kde.org
BTW, could any of the theme advocates tell me what the benefits of theming are? The article has given quite a few reasons against it, but I haven’t heard any reason /for/ it besides that it’s “cool”.
First we all use different OSes or Window Managers. This
isn’t being inconsistent, it just means you get to personalize your system. Now skins are really less intrusive than this: you only change the color/etc. of widgets…
Imagine you could even set your own layout rules.
Netscape with NeXT-like controls, anyone?
I think customizing is all about being productive/comfortable.
Skins are a user’s choice. I think that it’s wonderful once a person learns how to use an application it can be customised to fit their mood or personality. User Interfaces are a product of evolution and if no one liked skinnable applications then no one would use them and they would dry up.
Windows XP has a horrible skinning design. Not only does it look strange, but it does not do much to give anyone any actual control (not like WindowBlinds does) but it is a resource hog. Anyone using Windows XP who switches off the eye-candy can see a noticable speed increase.
Everything should be released with a usable, consistent interface. If the user has the option to change that interface that they enjoy more then you will see a happier user.
Themes are skin deep but consistancy is to the bone. Quit looking at it so hard. Anybody that would use a theme/skin that drastically modifies the GUI is fully aware of any consistancy loss, and is probably happy he/she had that choice. Now go away.
In the business work, yes the desktop & os should be consisant through out. That users can go to any workstation and have the same setup (aka common operating enviroment). But on the personal or home system, its the user’s choice. It’s just like buy a car, you get what you want not what someone tells you should. In my opinion, I’ve always felt that there should be two version of an operating system, normal and expert. That I can choose to change those things I find annoying such as MS’s “do you want to delete this?” yes “ok but do you realy want to delete this?”
“Themes that change the colours of things are OK, but themes that
change the shape, size, appearance and location of controls have NO
Not even if the control is notoriously in the wrong place, like the
close button on Windows windows? Is a user not allowed to ameliorate
his computer ?
” If you need some color in your life, look into fingerpaints. The only skin on a computer should be porn.”
Not to sound personally offended or anything, but as a programmer who just spend a couple weeks on a native widget theme for KDE, I *am* personally offended. What business does this fella have to tell *us* what to do? Seriously.
Just remember Henry Ford’s famous statement, along the lines of, “You can have it in any color, as long as it’s black”…
Anyway, very few themes change functionality. Some do, granted, but the vast majority are more or less superficial appearance tweaks. But if the concern here is maximum functionality, why don’t we also ban keyboard accelerator changes? And fonts, and desktop wallpapers, and hell, let’s prevent users from installing apps too — after all, Opera has a different interface than Konqueror or Internet Explorer. This could cause confusion, and the simple minded users of computers might become less productive.
When people talk like this, all I can assume is that They assume We are stupid. This is deeply offensive.
Why do you think cars have the same basic control layout for every car?
maybe i’m taking the metaphor too far, but: there are automatic cars and manual cars. some have 5 gears, some 4 some 6… some recent cars have tiptronic gears.
the steering wheel and seat are usually adjustable to suit size & preference. the interior fabric and exterior colour are user-definable. most cars have VERY different layout of the non-steering controls (ie: A/C, radio/casette, sunroof, mirror controls)
AND: in this country we have right-hand-drive
Well Said! Bravo! ( clap! clap! clap! clap! )
On cross platform applications like Mozilla skinning allows themes to be made that look appropriate to the respective platform. With a non-themeable app the user is stuck with a default interface that does not match any or all but one platform (unless the developers of those apps provide tailored UI’s for each.)
>>Not even if the control is notoriously in the wrong place, like the close button on Windows windows? Is a user not allowed to ameliorate his computer ?
How is the close button notoriously in the wrong place. Maybe if it’s allways in one place and then moved to a differant place on one app it would be in the wrong place. But Being in the same spot on every window in the whole OS everytime. I would say it’s very much in the right place.
Some one mentioned something about the three buttons on Windows windows being a horrible thing to most users or something like that a bit ago. I will never understand this. I’ve never seen a person complain about them and have no idea what more intuitive way you would do it. All Graphical OS’s (windows, mac, beos, various linux gui’s)use some form of this. I really want to know what makes the current design so bad. Hell, I want to know why some people claim the Windows interface is horrible and counter-productive. Seams fine to me, and isn’t much differant than most others.
Anyone who really is qualified to offer an opinion on this more than likely realizes that there is a need for consistency between apps and OS’s, but that’s about where the whole arguement ends.
The author tends to believe that since I might skin my WinXP setup differently than you or someone else, that suddenly we’re tearing down years of established procedures and methodology. Bullshit!
While I’ll fully agree that to let employees of a company skin their individual machines is foolhardy at best (I’d love to be the IT Tech at such a company… Can you imagine having to learn each persons machine before you can begin troubleshooting a problem?), it’s equally dumb to assume that people shouldn’t be as comfortable as possible with their own personal PC’s.
And let’s face it… While skins do let the average computer idiot completely muck up their system, making it as user-UNfriendly as possible, if you give the same skinning tools to someone with some common sense, they can create a much more usable and enjoyable computing experience.
For instance, I myself am a huge fan of Object Desktop’s various components. Do I use them all? No… I’ve played with them all in an effort to decide what suits my needs best, but I realistically only run about 2 of their products, and these simply allow me to be more functional.
If you’re really curious, I skin my titlebars, buttons, and then use these to add functionality to my overall OS (Rt-click an app’s titlebar, and it rolls up ala Windowshade. If you left-click the right icon, it locks the window to the fore of all other windows… That kinda stuff).
Kelly McNeill did make a couple of valid points, but I don’t think he’s fully aware of the pontential of skins. Or he simply doesn’t understand them… Either way, the public LOVES skinning. It ain’t going away… Get used to it.
If you don’t like skinning, fine. Don’t use it, but to make the blanket statement of “I know what’s best for the PC industry, and skinning must be done away at the OS level” (I’m really paraphrasing here) just shows a lack of understanding of both the PC market, it’s consumers, and what the market in general is moving towards.
I like skins, they allow me to make my computer look/behave the way I want it to. What is needed is for the different OS manufacturers to have s standard implementation of themes.
Allow me to take a windowblinds theme I run on my win98 box and use it on my linux or mac box, wihtout changing a thing. If the same theme was usable on different OS’s there wouldn’t be any problems.
And there should be a switch to return to the default OS appearance.
If poeple want consistancy and have the ability to use themes, create a uniform implementation of them across all OSes.
Why do I do that ? 1/ i’d be crazy today if i had not adopted LiteStep. I just hate the windows shell: start menu,icons, taskbar. I created my own “theme”, a minimalist one, cause i just need all the space on screen.
2/ i hate the Windows “window manager”. Yes, i cant stand it. I used windowblinds since the very first beta. My buttons are in the top left, where i can point easily my mouse at them. Its all about… ERGONOMY.
Now it’s been 3 years since i have my own LS theme and same time i use WB (more or less), and i’ve added a few features.
Sure, my system is only “usable” by myself! Guess what: when I leave my computer it’s LOCKED ANYWAY. Noone else than I shall use it, period.
Oh, i’ve done a little experience on my mom, when i offered her a computer. She had never touched a computer before. I installed WinXP, windowblinds. Installed 10 or 20 skins. I set the skin to BeOS (the OS i love). She never complained.
I changed again. Buttons where not in same place, features not the same. She didnt complain but… she said BeOS skin looked better. But she could use it. A very first time user.
So skinning doesnt seem to me such a big deal….
While I’m a big fan of Jef Raskin’s work, I think the point here is really “consistency across applications on the same platform.” Ideally, a GUI that lets you customize it will affect all applications in the same way–so it doesn’t break that.
And, it’s worth considering that if an operating system defined a way to change its “widget set,” it could be tacitly enforcing a fair amount of good UI design at the API level.
Look at http://www.themexp.org, http://www.stardock.com
Wow, this site is really denigrating into slashdottedness.
Lets get something straight-in the forums, linux related sites, and in all the alternative OS sites, the windows GUI is roundly criticized, for both its look, and its memory useage. Now, the sysadmin types want a CONSISTENT GUI?
I cannot believe that I am reading this. Why talk about Linux, with the ever growing # of desktops, or BE, or MAC OSX, when any GUI will do? Why talk about better GUI design, better system design, when you would rather everyone use a standard desktop? Why not just buy a DELL with windows XP, and be done with it?
I would suggest that before skinning under windows is roundly condemned, that the enlightened types should make their way over to deviantart.com and look at the themes available for the alternative shells for windows, just to see what is possible under the default desktop OS.
Then, I suggest they actually TRY THEM OUT BEFORE they COMMENT. Try Talisman, Litestep (Any one will do, although under XP I have had the best luck with the OTS version), graphite, geoshell, winstep, hoverdesk, and desktop X.
The point is: power users, which I assume we all are, want a tool that looks, acts, feels, behaves the way WE want it to, no matter what OS we are using.
To boldly deny us this right to use our computers as we wish, to use them as a tool for learning and experimentation as well as for our work, porn surfing and gaming, seems anathema to the spirit of OSNEWS, and to many of the OSes that it covers.
Mines not, it’s a toy, an expenive toy I want to play with.
I’m not a huge fan of themes, but here is a practical benefit: Say you are converting your business from OS#1 to OS#2, but all the secretaries and such are used to OS#1. If OS#2 has a well-done theme to simulate the look and feel of OS#1, then this might help everyone adapt more easily to the new OS. (done really well, they might not even notice that anything has changed…. ;^))
“The problems at the moment are not that OSes are running towards themes, but that indivdual apps are (I blame WinAMP ”
Albert Lu, one word, WindowBlinds. I agree that XP’s skinning is worthless, but M$ is actually supporting WindowBlinds.
“I agree that skinning can confuse new users and that OS’s and apps should ship with a default, consistent UI”
What is an OS gonna do? Choose a random theme when it’s installed?
“but the author of this article seems to be saying that since the ‘experts’ have determined skins are bad, that people should listen to them and not use skins. What’s his problem?”
I agree with you here! The thing is he’s using quotes that don’t support his point. He’s saying that everyones computer should look exactly the same incase a newbie happens to look at it.
“I’ve seen some horrible Winamp skins that, if they were taken to their conclusion at the OS level, would make the machine almost impossible to use.”
But that would be the user’s fault for using that skin, not the OS/App maker.
“jofol allows the buttons and displays to be resized and replaced, allowing more innovative skins. (but obviously this confuses the unwary user)”
Again, the user’s own fault.
“the same thing should be done in GUIs: make everything scriptable, like Smalltalk”
Again, WindowBlinds (or LiteStep).
“I wholeheartedly agree with the point of the article. If you just view the computer as a tool (which it is) and not a toy, themes are a complete and utter waste of time and resources.”
I think Windows is ugly, skinning it makes it look nicer. Having it look nicer makes me more comfortable with it which makes me more productive.
“They just make the system unuseable by anyone else but the usual user.”
What are you doing in my house?!? Get the f*** out!
“Like it or not, the BeOS GUI was the best there is. No customization of any controls.”
Kinda funny that they went skinnable in the end! The BeOS UI IS the best. However the GUI was not. There’s a difference.
“In fact there should be APIs that enforce the GUI rules”
So, are you a commie or a facist?
“Customisation has the effect of delegating part of the interface design to the user.”
No, not the user, the skin designer.
“The user must not only learn how to use a new application, but also how to customise it.”
Not with OS level skinning.
“Extra features add to the size of the software and the documentation.”
LiteStep is smaller and faster than the default shell (explorer.exe.)
“In the business work, yes the desktop & os should be consisant through out. That users can go to any workstation and have the same setup (aka common operating enviroment).”
In a properly admministrated business environment the user would have to log in, at which point his preferences are applied.
Basically any user that applies a skin which interferes with their productivity has only themselves to blame.
And finally, USABLITY is the most important factor in UI design NOT consistancy.