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How Would You Like Your Three Panes?

Diego is considering going to a different three pane layot for the next release of Clever Cactus (a java based PIM/Mail application). The old school of three paned navigation was useherd in by Netscape Communicator's e-mail program, and Outlook and Outlook Express lead the charge. It is now such a common idiom that almost all off-line rss aggrigators use the old school three pane navigation of channels on left, news item summary on the top right, and the full news items on the bottom left. The new trend seems to be to left middle right three panes. FeedDeamon defaults to three column, and the betas of Outlook from the new Office Betas start out in three column view. Diego is considering going that rout for Clever Cactus and has spent Another weblog entry hashing over more of the detals. However I am of the opinion that three column navigation won't fly. Why?

The most importiant issue in my eye is the issue of the center point. Like a fine piece of art, the content in a gui window should draw our eye to the most relevent or used area. The middle (actual middle or precieved middle) of the window should contain the most used window in the applicaiton. In the three column layout that is going to be the level 2 navigation, not the content pane that is going to be banished to the right side of the pane. Which for western readers the right side is the side most likely to be ignored. (Theater and broadway musicals use this fact to great effect). But there are other areas where we are trained to focus on the middle column of a three column layout. Look at most weblogs out there, most either put perifiery information to the left or the right of the main entry, and some put the info on both the left and the right, even Diego's own weblog uses three columns and places the most relevent content in the middle. Most (all?) modern software IDEs follow this ideal as well: the main editing pane tends to be in the middle while all of the auxiluary informational panes are scattered around the left, right, bottom, and top. It's BorderLayout to the extreme.

Another issue is that a usable three column layout requres a lot of horizontal real estate. We don't all have 16:9 apple cinema layouts so we have to deal with the 4:3 layout of most monitors. And not veryone likes to run every application maximized. About the only application I maximize is NetBeans, and that is because there is usually a lot of non-linier information I need accessible at once. Everything tends to take up about half to three quarters of the horizontal space with the widest content pane taking up about a half of the real sceen space. All the windows also take up 75% to 90% of the vertical space. By adding more horizontal exclusive space it requries me to widen my window.

It also adds more un-needed information to the window. I don't need to see all 30 options on the second level of navication, I am almost exclusively intereted in the top few from that stack. And the few time I do need that space in outlook (usually when I am seraching manually) I tend to make the preview pane much shorter. But as long as the current item is focused in the level 2 navigation I can minimize the needed space to use that level.

Finally it's been tried before. NeXT tried it first and moved it to early builds of the Aqua interfaces and there moans and moans of how hard it was to use. Part of it may have been resistance to new stuff in the new MacOS but if you look at all of the other UIs apple has done since basically none of them do what the NeXT finder did. Russ posted a bunch of GUI links to modern mac applications put out by apple and none of them do a three column layout left to right. All of the main content panes are large and take up the center point. In places where this represents a third level of navigation either the first pane is not shown or it is done where the panes are top left, bottom left, and center-right.

If any new direction in Clever Cactus should be taken perhaps it should be the TL-BL-CR format, with multi-line rows (like quicken or palm's versa mail) containing the second level navigation items. Three column just dosen't float my boat.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on July 7, 2003 8:59 AM.

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