There’s undoubtedly a whole series of items to be written on unexamined idioms in software user interfaces.1 Here’s one to kick off the series: the linking mechanism in rich text editors. It hasn’t changed in a decade, and it works the same way in new editors — like Yahoo’s Rich Text Editor and the .NET-based Windows Live Writer — as it always did. The idiom goes like this:
1. Select the text to which you want to attach your link.
2. Click the Link button.
3. Type (or paste) the URL.
I’ve watched novices struggle with this for years, and it’s no wonder that they do. What’s missing from this protocol is the capture of the URL. (That’s almost always necessary because few URLs nowadys can be easily typed.) So the idiom really goes like this:
1. Navigate to the target of the link.
2. Capture the URL.
3. Select the text to which you want to attach your link.
4. Click the Link button.
5. Type (or paste) the URL.
We have never, in any rich text editor I’ve ever seen, woven in support for those crucial first two steps.
How might that work? It occurs to me that a picture-in-picture browser would be really helpful. I’ve only seen one example of that genre — Bitty Browser — but it, or an equivalent widget, would seem like a great solution. When you click the Link button you get a picture-in-picture browser that you use to navigate to the link target. Ideally it loads with your current history and tabs, so the target is within easy reach.2 When you land on the target, there’s a button to copy the URL. Now that you’ve been guided through the first two steps, the remaining three flow naturally.
1 Just for fun, I’m going to try keeping a list at del.icio.us/judell/unexamined-software-idioms. To play along you can do the same at del.icio.us/YOU/unexamined-software-idioms, and we can see what accumulates in del.icio.us/tag/unexamined-software-idioms.
2 You can see a glimmer of this idea in Live Writer. From its linking dialog you can navigate to, and select, a prior post or a glossary entry.