Wednesday, 6 March 2013 by Heiko Tietze
We show on the example of the Navigator and two other functions that toolbars should not be toggled on and off by a button in the main toolbar.
Seldom used functions: Data sources, Gallery, Navigator
A toolbar (here we refer to the primary, standard toolbar) is a UI element primarily designed for fast access to frequently used functions. But often it is diverted from its intended use and serves for presentation of special actions. It’s a great challenge for designers to develop an icon that fits those seldom used and probably less known functions.
Actually, the¬†Navigator implemented in LibreOffice doesn’t provide some kind of help function as it might be understood by new users, but it shows or hides a side bar, where you can quickly jump to different parts of the document. The icon consists of an abstract star or, metaphorically, a compass rose.
Another seldom used function is Gallery. This function again toggles a toolbar which allows to select pictures, wallpapers, or tones and insert them into the current document. The icon is made of a folder with a small bitmap or some kind of abstract symbol respectively. And Data Sources provides functions to connect, browse, and interact with¬†database tables. The icon looks like a bar chart within a document in Tango and some kind of form in Oxygen.
The icon test reveals that users hardly associate the function with the correct icon (cf. Methodology of Testing Icons). The worst value of the whole icon test is found with 4.4 for Data Sources in Oxygen. As a rule of thumb a value below 9 is questionable.
Table 1: Results of icon test.
Ambiguous metaphors lead the users to associate icons with unintended functions. Thus, the term ‘navigator’ is associated with the hyperlink icon (18% mix-up in Tango). Yet 60% of the participants failed to associate Data Sources with the correct icon in Oxygen. With 15% the icon is used for Navigator and 18% mismatch the Table icon to the function. The Gallery icon is used for ‘Document as E-Mail‘ in Oxygen with 24%. Only the Tango Icon for Gallery is working fine.
Whereas application’s whole functionality (that does not exclusively rely on context) is located in the main menu, the intention of the toolbar is fast access to frequently used functions. Developers must not abuse it for presentation of special actions. Neither ‘exit’ or ‘help’ nor functions to configure the interface in terms of switching other toolbars on /off are frequently used functions and must not be added to the standard toolbar. If it is necessary to direct users to special actions or to advice a feature one should consider different interactions.
Designers should pay attention on familiarity as well. The better a function is introduced the more abstract an icon can be designed. In contrast, rarely used and less known functions need support by concrete pictures and expressive metaphors.
Two, rather simple changes may help to access functions in LibreOffice more easily. First, rename Navigator to ‘Show Document Structure‘. By doing so the (English) verb-noun convention of function labels is met (other labels should be renamed accordingly). Moreover, misunderstandings with other functions that are related with any kind of navigation are removed. Similar advice can be given concerning the other functions.
Because all discussed functions just toggle toolbars on /off – and since they are presumably used rather seldom -, it should be taken into consideration to move them into a drop-down menu like suggested in What is a pencil used for? regarding Show Draw Functions. But nevertheless the icons and metaphors for Data Sources and Gallery need improvement.
Do you use these functions? What’s your opinion about our suggestions, i.e. moving them to a separate menu?