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By Jack Bellis

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For instance, if you tell Microsoft Word to count the words in your document, you will not be able to use any other Word functions (other than cancel the process) while it is busy counting. The problem is that most programs use the Status Bar at the bottom of the screen to tell you that the system is not paying attention to you: Experienced users are learning to look in the status bar when the machine seems non-responsive, but the Status Bar is so subtle as to be unnoticeable. It has a passive presence, not an active one.

4. The User Interface: Hit Any Key to Continue 48 Then look at the Field Names that appear when you select Document Information: All of a sudden, the Field Names are meaningful! Strictly speaking though, this example doesn’t violate my rule because the Description box at the bottom of the dialog provides a nice, descriptive translation of each code. But it does provide a nice side-by-side demonstration of the difference between internal codes and descriptive values. (Editors Note April 5, 2003: MS Word for XP still hasn’t fixed this.

What can you do? Programmers: Don’t change menus and dialogs based on context. Instead, make the interface inform the user differently. #13: Always Provide Visual Cues Whenever a program does something, it should tell the user or give some sort of visual feedback. A particularly subtle example occurs in Microsoft Mail, which uses a clever but secretive method on its main addressee look-up list, shown below. Here’s what it does when you don’t know a recipient’s name, and you try to get it from the list: if you type the first few letters of the recipient’s name, it goes deeper into the list, matching all of the letters you type (not just the first one).

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