Simplifying the User Interface for Repetitive Tasks

Custom File Formats

Contact Information
  Andrew Harrington
  Loyola University Chicago
  Computer Science Department
  820 N. Michigan Ave.
  Chicago, IL 60611
  anh@cs.luc.edu
  312-915-7982

Basis of a Lightning talk at PyCon 2005

Even a new user of a program may end up doing repetitive actions, and common GUI interfaces can be tedious to navigate repeatedly. The author uses photo gallery software as an example, comparing existing tools and a program he has written that uses a simple text file to help the user's productivity.

The Original Context

After the author attends an event and takes many digital pictures, he wanted to be able to process them all quickly, creating a static web gallery with meaningful names for the pictures and with optional comments, and rotating pictures as necessary. A quick web search showed a variety of tools with GUI interfaces that required many mouse interactions beyond what was necessary to process the desired information. The author wrote a Python application to generate a thumbnail index and individual pages for images with their titles and comments.

Comparisons with Other Software

Writing gallery programs appears to be a popular activity. A long list of freeware alternatives is at http://graphicssoft.about.com/od/webgalleryfreepc/

Many of the packages have an entirely GUI interface with buttons and individual text fields, allowing only one comment to be visible at a time and requiring multiple mouse clicks or tabs to navigate. Some require each individual picture to be manually selected. Some of the interfaces are efficient if only comments are going to be added. For instance JAlbum skips immediately to the comment field for the next picture with just a tab. If title or rotation need to be changed, it is not so efficient.

Several packages do allow titles and comments for multiple images to be stored in a single file. The feature packed Source Forge Gallery project allowed only 10 images to be considered together, and hence still required the specific subset of the images to be explicitly specified. The developers suggested that I submit my approach as a requested feature. Galleroo does work with a text file specifying all titles and comments. None of the programs checked allow easy file name changes and rotations along with comment and title changes.

Conclusion

There are obviously many situations where a traditional GUI interface is useful: where there are many fields to select from and operations are not routinely repeated. On the other hand, many activities involve repeated human interaction on a known collection of objects. Processing a directory full of digital camera images is merely an example. What is easy to follow in a GUI for a few repetitions becomes tedious with more repetitions. Thought needs to be given to making repeated actions efficient. This may be accomplished in many ways. One option, a well-designed text file interface, appears to be underutilized, and may be worth consideration as an option, even though many flashier possibilities are available. It is also important for easy direct user interaction that the file format was custom, without excess markers and syntax to make it fit into some general interface like XML.

The current gallery program and this page are at http://www.cs.luc.edu/~anh/gallery.