What you get is what you see (yes, that’s what I meant to say)

From Jakob Nielsen is R.I.P. WYSIWYG – Results-Oriented UI Coming, a look at the possible (and, he argues, needed) demise of the What You See is What You Get (WYSIWYG) design for user interface.

Unfortunately, we’ve now reached the limits of the current GUI paradigm. Displaying commands in menus, toolbars, and dialog boxes works with a limited number of elements. But Microsoft Word 2003 has 1,500 commands, and users typically have no clue where to find most of them.

Another WYSIWYG downside is that it forces too much manual labor on users and requires a stretch of imagination to envision results in advance. Yes, you can gradually massage your work into the shape you desire, one modification at a time, and visually confirm progress as you go. But you have to make each modification yourself, at the cost of many a mouse click….

Direct manipulation of WYSIWYG objects thus has three primary limitations:

  • A plethora of commands, each of which you must locate (most people don’t, and thus never use most of the features they’ve paid for).
  • Lots of chopping away at the edges to shape your marble block of a blank screen into your desired goal (leading to a great loss of productivity).
  • No guidance relative to the goal; you must determine how to reach your goal from the starting state by combining multiple primitive commands. (This denies most users their expressive power; people are generally better at modifying an existing design than creating one from scratch.)

Nielsen uses the new design in the next version of Microsoft Office, based on a results-oriented user interface, to describe what he thinks this next generation of user interface will be like.

Rest assured, the current GUI will stick around for quite a while, but – as Nielsen states – as Office goes, so goes much of the rest of the software world.

Personally, I’m looking forward to giving it a try.