Dark Room and the Problems with GUIs

By Deane Barker on July 15, 2006

Application UI goes back to basics: Jon Udell discovers WriteRoom, and makes an important point.

I’m writing this column on a Mac-based imitation of a 1970s green-screen terminal. Hog Bay Software’s WriteRoom, a free program for Mac OS X, advertises “distraction free writing” as its

In WriteRoom’s default full-screen mode there are no menus, toolbars, or ribbons; no extraneous windows inviting me to check e-mail, read RSS feeds, search the Web, rearrange my virtual desktop, or otherwise shirk the task at hand. There’s nothing but green text, a black background, and a cursor.

He’s so right. I use Dark Room, which is a Windows port of WriteRoom. It’s wonderful to write with no distractions — I find that my writing is better when I use it.

Reading is the same way. In Acrobat, hit Ctrl-L to make the PDF full screen, floating on a black background. Combine this with an flat panel monitor and video driver that will let you rotate your screen, and you can make a full-size (plus) version of a PDF float in front of you, with nothing in the background. You can focus on what you’re reading so much easier.

Last year sometime, I reviewed some apps that let you read magazines online as they would be printed. I noted this same phenomenon:

While this stuff is cool in its own right, it highlights one of the big problems with the Web: it’s tough to keep your attention on Web content, because the Web is ever-changing and it’s so easy to get distracted. Hyperlinks beckon you on to more content and you know that different…stuff, is just a bookmark click away.

What I found when reading content designed for print, was that I spent more time reading it. I would actually read an entire article, rather than just skim it, and I could actually be semi-contemplative about something, instead of rushing to finish so I could move onto the next thing. There was an unmistakable sense of peace about the entire process that I’ve just never gotten from Web content.

I feel the same thing when I open Dark Room and start to write: peace. I slow down as everything else on my desktop disappears. You really have to try it.

Udell expands his point to applications in general:

Consider the effects of the graphical user interface. At hospital admitting desks, in accountants’ offices, and at video retail stores, I watch people perform tasks for which the desktop metaphor — with its cluttered surface and overlapping resizable windows — is at best a distraction and at worst an impediment. […]

He’s absolutely right. There’s a place for green-screen apps in the world.

I was in a food supply company a few months ago, and they were running of an old DOS system for entering orders. While I was initially horrified at how old their software was, I quickly became enraptured by how fast these order reps could enter orders.

They were so proficient with the app, and it was so focused and simple to move around, that they could flow through app at impossible speed. Screens came in and out so fast I almost had a seizure. There is no way they could have maintained that speed with a GUI. Trying to force one on them would probably have been horribly demoralizing.

More recently, I finally got around to learning the keyboard shortcuts for GMail. How cow — they’re wonderful. I can process all my mail without taking my hands off the keyboard. I get irritated now when I have to reach for the mouse. On top of not having to reach for the mouse, I’m getting so good with the shortcuts that I can just fly through my email.

While I like GUIs as much as the next guy, they really diffuse your attention for reading, and they can really slow down a repetitive, channelled task. If you have a mature Web app, investing in the development of a well-implement set of keyboard shortcuts would increase your app’s usability immensely.

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