Monday, 8 February 2016

This behavior is by design

Visual customization (or personalization, or whatever else you want to call the ability to configure software to suit your specific needs) is a big thing for me. Especially for software that I use for long periods of time. And, for this kind of software, there's nothing more important than changing the color scheme. Sure, changing the font can be nice, changing the font size is definitely important, but changing the color scheme is, as far as I'm concerned, essential.

For me, there's nothing worse than staring at a glaring white background for hours. I've got nothing against all you 0xFFFFFF lovers out there, it's just not my thing.

These last few days, I've been comparing several visual customization alternatives, from the user's point of view. Why from the user's point of view? Because I consider that to be the most important point of view, we create software for users.

Also, when selecting the criteria for classification, there was one aspect that out-weighted the others by several orders of magnitude: Time. It's not just about changing the look of software, but doing it quickly.

As a final note, when I talk about visual customization, I mean the ability to change just about every visual aspect of the interface. There is a name for software that has a "customization" option that only allows you to change the color of the title bar or the toolbar, but I won't say it here, there may be children reading this (I hear it's great for insomnia).

So, here's the final result, from best to worst:

1. The software provides official alternatives to the default look

"Official" here means "created or curated by the software developer", and easily accessible/installable via some sort of manager that takes care of download/installation. To qualify, these alternatives must be diverse (not just variations on glaring white) and must actually work (e.g., no blue text on a black background - yes, Linux shell, I'm looking at you).

Oh, and "curated" means someone actually looked at the whole thing and confirmed that we're not getting the blue-on-black stroke of genius. Being free of bugs/exploits/nasty surprises is a must, but it's not enough.

For software that makes this grade, I don't really care that much about how difficult it may be to change individual aspects of the provided looks/themes/whatever, because we have a coherent whole that works.

Out of the software I use, the winners are Visual Studio and Qt Creator. Congratulations to these teams, top quality work. Android Studio follows right behind, and the only reason it's not up there with those two is because does have some hard-to-read combinations, where the text and background colors are very similar.

2. The software is easy to configure

Since we're not guaranteed to have a coherent alternative here, it must be easy to either change the whole look (e.g., via theming) or individual aspects of it.

So, here we may have software that has a "wealth of community-provided looks/themes/whatever", where trying out a theme is trivial, but changing each individual aspect is not - e.g., Chrome/Firefox extensions.

And we also have software that may or may not have all that wealth, but has a trivial way of either changing the whole look or individual aspects of it - e.g., Notepad++ or gedit.

Changing individual aspects may not give the user a complete coherent workspace, but it will provide a good starting point and, since it's easy to configure, it will allow the user to quickly solve problems as they appear. Again, a very time-efficient solution. Not as good as #1, but a positive experience, all things considered.

3. The software is not easy to configure

Here, it's irrelevant if we're talking about the whole look or individual aspects of it.

This is the software that expects the user to manually download some sort of file (usually, an archive file), copy it to some directory and expand it; or to copy some existing files from a system-protected directory to a user directory and then edit those, looking for some more-or-less cryptic configuration key and changing some usually-even-more-or-less cryptic value; and then, maybe, having to restart the software. Bonus (negative) points if it's a system-wide configuration, where "restart" actually means "reboot".

Most Linux desktops I've tried fall in this category. In order to change a simple visual aspect, if you can't find a recipe for changing the exact item you want, you're in for a good reading of Gtk, or Qt, or some-other-widget-toolkit docs (assuming what you want is properly documented), followed by some file copying, key-searching, and value tweaking. And, since what you'll get will usually be a good starting point, you'll have the enormous pleasure of repeating the process as further problems appear.

Oh, and if you do find the recipe you're looking for, check its date, and make sure the toolkit/software version match yours.

Here, I usually do just enough work to splash a dark background on the software I use the most and ignore everything else. I definitely don't want to waste more time than absolutely necessary.

4. The abomination

This is a special category. You may have already got that impression from the heading, but it's also special in that it has only one entry: Windows Aero.

Let's make this clear - I often look at design options and think "This is incredibly stupid, but maybe there is some logic that I'm missing here". As the man sang, "I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed", so there's definitely room for error on my part. However, when we get to Windows Aero, I can't get past the comma in that sentence. I've considered it several times, and I can see no logic here.

Let's look at the symptoms:
  • Countless posts asking what should be a very simple question, "How do I change the background color for Windows Explorer?", and getting one of two answers: Either "Switch from Aero to Basic/Classic/Anything-Else-That's-Not-Aero" or "Why would you want to do that, there's plenty of people that use white and love it". Both these answers actually mean "You can't".

  • Of course, that's not entirely true. You can. You just have to reverse-engineer the binary format that stores the color configuration (basically it's a DLL containing resources). Or pay for a utility created by someone who went through that effort; then, you'll still have to create your "visual style", and you'll still have to patch Windows to allow you to use your non-signed "visual style".

  • Yes, you read that correctly. Binary format? Check! DLL? Check! Patch Windows? Check! Options such as the background color for applications are stored (although "buried", "concealed", or even "encrypted" would be more suited here) in an undocumented binary format, in a DLL, stored in a protected system folder.

This is the only example I've found where your best option is to actually pay for a third-party application to do something as simple as changing a background color. BTW, this is also why you find successful commercial alternatives to Windows Explorer. It's not just the extra functionality these alternatives have (and they do add value to their offerings), it's also this brain-dead design by the Aero team, that means that something as simple as "the ability to change the background color" is a value point.

Here, I don't even waste my time. I'm just grateful that whoever designed Windows Aero didn't get to unleash its remarkable genius anywhere near Visual Studio.

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