Friday, 16 October 2009

The Golden Age of UI Design

If you’ve been using computers as long as I have, you will be familiar with the evolution of Windows, from the humble 3.x on up to Win 7. A lot has changed over the years. As developers we have had to shift gears with each new incarnation. I’m probably dating myself if I mention Windows 3.1 and VB 3.0, but given the time, VB 3 practically ushered in RAD and allowed developers to create respectable UIs for the platform.

With regards to the Windows User Interface, I can still remember the release of Windows 95 and all the fervour it created. There were developers and IT pros complaining bitterly about the change, citing their preference for 3.1 and their dislike for the new battleship grey 95. Those of us who embraced 95 in all its greyness, found new UI controls in our toolbox, most notably the Windows Common Controls. Enthusiasts, like myself, poured over Microsoft’s Windows 95 User Interface Guidelines book, a tome containing pixel by pixel specifications for creating standard Windows applications.

If you were like me, this wasn’t enough. The next rung on the ladder was exploiting (some times questionable) Win API and GDI hacks, all in the attempt to enhance our application interfaces.

The advent of .Net put an end to much of this. Designing WinForm applications certainly got easier and custom UIs no longer required slimy hacks. But, we were still limited to XP styled desktop applications.

Concurrent with the advancements in Windows programming, the internet exploded and took centre stage. Graphic designers and illustrators sat side-by-side with application developers to create a new breed of user interface. User expectations were raised; not only did a UI have to be functional, but it had to be sexy as well. Flash and Shockwave designers and developers expanded this further, raising the bar even higher.

All of these advancements made WinForms look rather antiquated.

All this was about to change with the release of .Net 3.0 and the introduction of Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF). For those unfamiliar with WPF, WPF is a XAML-based framework for creating Vista-styled desktop applications. Think XHTML meets WinForms and you’re almost there.

Not only was WPF structurally different from its WinForms cousin, but included new resources and functionality WinForm developers only dreamed of. At last, desktop developers could create dynamic, sexy user interfaces that rivalled their contemporaries. The capabilities of WPF are so vast, that if you can dream it, you probably can build it.

Gone are the stringent interface guidelines dictated by Microsoft; in its place are new collaborations between graphic designers and artists and software developers to produce user-centric software. All-in-all, this change is rather liberating. Where its headed I don’t know; will it be different from the past? Guaranteed.

However, this is no Holy Grail. Designers and developers will still manage to produce repulsive, poorly designed software. But this is a chance we’re going to have to take.

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