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Main »» Interviews

Interview with Matthew Kille - AmigaOS 4.0 GUI Design (17-Jun-2003)  Popular
(Read 10256 times)
MikeB: Hello Matthew, you are well known for your graphical and coding talents. But what are your prior experiences with regard to designing user interfaces?

I have a strong personal interest in the subject of human computer interaction (HCI) and user interface design in general. I spent four years as a member of the Interactive Systems Research Group (ISRG), Department of Cybernetics, at the University of Reading, England. My research there was applying artificial intelligence (another interest of mine) to the design of unique computer user interfaces in both real and virtual reality type environments. I have published and presented a couple of scientific international conference papers on the subject, and have a Ph.D. thesis in progress.

MikeB: What are in your opinion the main principles for a well designed GUI and how does this translate into the final default GUI for AmigaOS4?

In my opinion the ideal user interface, quite simply, should be intuitive. To achieve this, you need a good mix of a number of key ingredients: simplicity, consistency and responsiveness.

Historically, one of the greatest strengths of AmigaOS has always been its responsiveness. Quick feedback is an essential feature, not just for computer operating system interfaces, but for any interactive system. When you click a button on your computer screen, you expect to see that button react. Any delay at this point contributes, at best, to a feeling of detachment from the computer. At worst, it becomes frustrating and tiring. Today a classic Amiga can still impress with what it does with aging hardware. Even under heavy load, an Amiga still feels responsive -- something which certain other operating systems with modern hardware can still fail to achieve.

Simplicity is another area where AmigaOS performs well -- though some would argue that it does this a little too well! As with most things, there has to be a balance.

Consistency is the main area of concern with AmigaOS. Over the years, with little in the way of leadership direction or guidelines, AmigaOS and Amiga software has accumulated a wide range of add-on attributes, most of which are inconsistent with each other: there are several different user interface APIs, each with different ways of displaying the same information, different styles/sizes of buttons, menus, icons, toolbars, etc., all of which contributes to a poor overall appearance and compatibility issues. Visual consistency in particular has been one of the primary targets of the new OS4 GUI design. Getting this right wont happen overnight, but the situation will improve with this and future revisions of the OS.

MikeB: How has the development of the default AmigaOS4 GUI design progressed? Were there important difficulties or limitations you had to take into account with regard to your design efforts?

At this point I should perhaps clarify what we mean by the term 'default OS4 GUI design'. It is common misconception that this is simply about choosing a few background textures and colours, though this does come into it. It is not even about the icons and images used. It is in fact a matter that is far more fundamental that those things. It is about the basics. Things like the size of buttons, the spacing between gadgets, their alignment, how text should be displayed, etc. A lot of this work includes rather subtle things like, for example, the fact that we have introduced a few pixels of 'dead space' between the window right-hand side gadgets to help reduce the chance of a misplaced mouse click...

Anyway, progress has been necessarily slow and deliberate, but steady. The initial design for the AmigaOS4 default GUI took about three months to develop, before implementation began. A lot of time was spent examining what was already available; what could and could not already be done; and what could be added or changed within a reasonable timeframe. From this, a modest design was formed, with the aim of bringing the interface more up-to-date without losing any of the identity that is AmigaOS.

There are many limitations and compatibility issues that must be considered when making changes to AmigaOS. Some of these issues are quite elusive, seemly trivial on the surface. But in fact these often have deep and far reaching consequences for anything you wish to do. Design concepts that take only minutes to create in a paint program can literately take months to develop into the working interface.

MikeB: Hyperion in the past stated that they will eventually be aiming at a fully skinable user interface. How far has the AmigaOS4 team's efforts come so far with regard to realizing this ultimate goal in your opinion? And how much do you value user customizability?

User interface customisability is a great feature for power users. I dread to think how many hours in total I have spent fiddling with the settings for Workbench, MUI, Directory Opus, etc. But just like overclocking, custom tower case modifying and other such 'geek' pastimes, it's not for everyone. The majority of computer users in the wider world simply want to use their computer to help them perform tasks in the shortest and most comfortable way possible.

A fully skinable user interface is quite a challenging task to solve, much more so when you want to integrate it into an existing framework like AmigaOS. At the very least, it requires some complicated new extensions to the user interface API and 3rd party developers that make use of them. Despite being a such major undertaking, however, it is anticipated that fully skinable user interfaces will be available as early as AmigaOS4.1.

MikeB: Various graphically talented Amiga community individuals have designed AmigaOS4 screenshot mock-ups to illustrate their personal GUI preferences. What is your general opinion with regard to these mock-ups and could they currently be implemented into the AmigaOS4.0 framework?

As part of the design process I personally researched about 10 different operating system interfaces, around 50 Amiga user screenshots, and all the past mock-up concept OS4 images of the past five or so years, (including all the comments given for these, where available). I could even contribute a number of pretty radical concept images myself...

I'm afraid, however, that what can be produced in a paint program with little more than a few clicks of the mouse, a few special effects and a bit of imagination, doesn't translate into an actual working product particularly well. As I have already described above, there is a world of difference between picturing a design and actually programming and using it. (Unless, of course, you are only looking at changes like background textures and the basic colour scheme -- though there are some restrictions even here.)

There are many aspects of the overall design that are often not taken into consideration in a static image. Backwards compatibility is the biggest problem. Even a question as harmless as "how will this work on a display with 256 or less colours?" can ruin even the simplest of designs. Likewise I have seen concept images that use the subtlest of graphical special effects all over the place; making them look very pretty but without regard for the impact such a feature would have on the performance of the interface in the real world, assuming it could be implemented in the first place.

I think such concept images are fun, and help to picture what we might like to see in the future, but, respectfully, I do not think that now is the time to be discussing such things, on the eve of the OS4 release.

MikeB: Here at we will be trying to setup collective efforts to design alternative AmigaOS4 themes, as no default theme will satisfy everyone's taste. Users and visual experts will be asked for providing public feedback. What is your opinion with regard to any such efforts and which potential pitfalls should be taken into account considering your personal experiences so far?

Contributors should be aware of the difference between mock-up concept images and achievable OS4 themes. Avoid creating new elements or rearranging existing ones. Stick to the basics: screen and window background images, gadget images, fonts. The other changeable elements can be determined by looking at all the previous OS4 screenshots.

If people can work within these constraints, then I see no reason why we cannot collect together some of the best designs, give them some final polish, and have them distributed in the 3rd party contributions section of AmigaOS4.

Thanks a lot for answering my questions. - MikeB
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