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In Search of the Contextual Interface

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

by Samuel Greengard

The computing experience has improved a lot in recent years. Systems have gotten easier to use, and problems--including freezes, crashes and entirely hosed computers--have become far less common. But one thing hasn't changed: the ability to use computers efficiently.

Click on a menu within an application and ask yourself if you know what all the different commands do. For example, I'm now writing in Word and I have no clue about the purpose of the "Reduce File Size" command. I'm sure it does something really important but, even clicking on it and using it doesn't explain to me why I want to use it. Likewise, when I click on the "Open Location" menu item in Chrome nothing seems to happen. I have no idea what location I'm supposed to be opening from.

Contextual menus offer some hope. The ribbons in Word and Excel do a reasonably good job of getting rid of unwanted icons and commands but also making them available at a click or two. That is, if you can remember where the command you want to access is located, and if you can figure out which command does what you desire.

However, this doesn't solve a bigger problem: the fact that user interfaces are lagging. The typical PC or Mac displays way too much clutter--menu bars, open application windows and other stuff--that has nothing to do with what a user is working on at any given moment. Virtual desktops help. But as the information age unfolds and computing becomes more complex, interfaces must become more contextual as well. In some instances, they need to learn what we do and don't do and adapt accordingly.

The best interfaces currently exist within the IOS and Android operating systems. I can't count the number of times I've been sitting at my desktop computer, needed a tidbit of information and picked up my iPhone rather than clicking the web browser right in front of my face. Oftentimes, the phone is faster and easier to use. It narrowcasts the information I need the instant I need it.

No application or OS will ever be perfect. But engineers, designers and developers must do a better job of helping everyone sort through the crush of data, information and knowledge that flies by 24x7x365. In the end, context rules.