The User Should Control the Focus

Launching Word… hmm, that’s gonna take a minute. Well, I’ll just pop back into Safari and check Gmail. Username, check. Password, ch… what the?… Why is my password showing up in Word? Oh, I guess my computer finally finished loading the app. It must not have realized (or cared?) that I was still in Safari, even though I was loading pages and typing. But, shouldn’t it continue to do the last thing I asked it to do? I mean, I shifted focus away from Word and towards Safari. Why should the computer forcibly change my focus. I’m the user, the commander, the “One Who Controls the Mouse”.

Its supposed to be about me

Now, if this was just my ego being challenged, that would be blasphemy enough. But, the problem isn’t just my fragile ego. There is a danger in having the computer change the user’s focus. Exposing passwords to those around you is one such example. Another is when I’m clicking on things in one program, but the computer places a “Are you sure you want to delete all of your photos” button right under the cursor as I click.

If this doesn’t happen to you, maybe you’re patient (complacent?). Not me, a computer should wait for me, not the other way around. Why should I wait for a bloated program to load (no offense Word, but, come on, you could stand to lose a few MB) when I have a fast, multitasking computer seemingly willing to indulge my ADHD. There isn’t a day that goes by that does not involve cursing because I properly entered the keystrokes to quit an app or close a window, only to quit or close the wrong thing. This isn’t a magic show. I’m not interested in sleight-of-hand when I’m working (OK… shopping on Amazon).

The indignation doesn’t stop there

On the iPhone, if I receive a text message or a push alert, I’m blocked from doing anything until I close the notification or jump to the app demanding my attention. There is no way to delay dealing with the notification until I’m ready. If I leave the current app, I may need to start over, reload a page or have to jump through hoops to get back to where I was.

The whole “put a button in the middle of the screen unexpectedly” issue is similar to it’s desktop counterpart. I’ve accidentally launched apps or ignored messages while typing or navigating in the app that I’m focused on. Amazing! Not only can my computer inspire sailor-worthy involuntary interjections, but so can my phone!

A better way

On the Mac, there’s a nifty, free utility called Growl. The website describes it as letting “Mac OS X applications unintrusively tell you when things happen”. It only works with Growl-aware apps, but it sets a great example for, well, unintrusively letting me know when things happen.

On Windows PCs, there’s the notification bubble. Unfortunately, there is no way to set which kind of notifications are worthy or how often they repeat. And it’s opaque, blocking any content underneath. So close, but poorly implemented.

On the iPhone, Apple added a ribbon at the top of the screen when you’re on a phone call. The ribbon reads “Touch to return to call”. This gives you two important things: a visual cue reminding you that your phone is still in use and a functional “button” that will take you back to the phone app. Unfortunately, this is the only time Apple saw fit to use this type of feature. Evernote on the iPhone does a nice job of showing when notes are being synchronized. When the notes finish synchronizing, the status fades away. Palm’s Web OS does a great job of letting you continue with the task at hand, and still allow you to keep an eye on the status of incoming notifications with quick access to the apps that would like your attention, you know, when you feel like it. I look forward to seeing what Android will do with notifications. Motorola’s DROID web site highlights DROID’s status bar: “Pull down the expandable notification panel to see what you want to see, when you want to see it.” That sounds good to me. Now if only I could get that on my iPhone and desktop.

returntocall evernotenotification webosnotifications

4 Responses to “The User Should Control the Focus”

  1. Razz says:

    Well said. The password issues I have seen many times. Not to me of course, but to other people, that look a lot like me… Not me though. I ended up typing an email into google once. It should be so simple, if you can handle me changing apps then why take me back simply because you caught up with me.

  2. Razz says:

    Really hits home when you have this happen. I was in Mail.app, hit iTunes on the Dock, and went back to mail. While selecting emails iTunes came back up and I instead selected the Applications group. The menu bar even still said Mail. Arrrghghh.

  3. Mark, Sr. says:

    This happens to me often. It’s like the menu bar changes apps, but the rest of the screen never catches up. I am trying to use the hot key app switcher more often to alleviate this problem: Apple+TAB

  4. Razz says:

    Hey Mark,

    Yeah, it happens to everyone, which is why Mike’s post is so correct. The user should control the focus.