Gettin’ Higgy wit It

Human interface guidelines go far beyond the idea of a simple visual style sheet — “Buttons should have X units of padding” or “Window title bars should be dark gray” — and provide a comprehensive framework for developing consistent and enjoyable user interfaces. As my interest grew in the overall user experience, I dove into the HIGs for the major desktop environments: Mac OS X, Windows, GNOME[1], and KDE. The level of thoroughness and strictness of each HIG roughly mirrored my layman’s opinion of each environment, though there were some surprises.

Mac OS X

Far and away the most useful HIG in my opinion. Sure, Apple has been known to deviate from their own HIG (sometimes in baffling, trivial, or confusing ways), but the baseline from which they work is much clearer in both explicit specifics and its implied intentions.

Of particular interest to me were the menu guidelines, for both the menu bar and contextual menus. I was working on improving both menu types in a major product for the company I was working for at the time, and Apple’s HIG provided clear guidelines on how to standardize the common elements and rationale for managing custom elements. One thing which sets Apple’s HIG out from the pack is that it doesn’t shy away from explicitly telling you not to do something (contrast with the Windows HIG, below).

OS X Lion’s bothersome tendency towards skeuomorphic nonsense notwithstanding, Apple is unsurprisingly the leader when it comes to defining the user experience of their platform.


The Windows HIG is expansive, but it suffers from the platform’s long history of allowing a myriad of ways to accomplish any given task. The ability to say no is an important quality of any editor, and the strength of the Windows HIG is sometimes diluted by allowing similar widgets which operate in subtly different ways. If developers don’t have a clear directive of which widgets to use for a given situation, it stands to reason that most users won’t grok the differences in behavior when one developer chooses A and another chooses B.

I’ll be interested to see what the Windows 8 HIG looks like, as the Metro UI will require a tighter rein to maintain a consistent experience.


Having only using Linux in general and GNOME in particular sporadically at best, GNOME’s HIG turned out to be a good deal more thorough than I expected. Concise guidelines for most standard uses were provided, and importantly, explanatory text was included to help define the rationale. This supporting text helps to inform decisions when a situation is encountered that is not explicitly covered by the HIG.

As one might expect the GNOME HIG is not as comprehensive as the Mac OS X HIG (or as restrictive, some might say), but it does show that a collaborative project can execute a clear vision.


I have had the least hands-on experience with KDE. Working primarily from a vantage point of the stereotype that KDE appeals to the most devoted hackers and tweakers, I found the KDE HIG to mostly reinforce that view. In contrast with the GNOME HIG, which gave me a real sense of the GNOME design approach, the KDE HIG was an incomplete collection of loose guidelines. That’s not to say anything directly about the KDE environment itself, but the HIG didn’t paint a very clear picture. One might infer that a lack of clearly defined guidelines would manifest itself in the end user’s experience, but I’d have to demur on that point out of personal inexperience with KDE.


Evaluating these HIGs individually and collectively was an enlightening exercise. Not only did it sharpen the focus of each platform, but seeing where there was (and wasn’t) common ground between the HIGs provided a universal de facto desktop standard of sorts.

HIGs are also available for each of the major mobile platforms — iOS, Android, and Windows Phone 7[2]. The design choices outlined in each provide a look into both current and future mobile development, and as OS X Lion and Windows 8 are demonstrating, possibly the future of the desktop as well.

  1. This was prior to GNOME 3.0. I’m looking forward to exploring both GNOME 3.0 and Unity when I get the time, and I plan on posting after my first hands-on experiences with them.
  2. webOS also has a HIG, which could be an interesting read, but perhaps of muted practical relevance.

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