Putting the power back in the hands of computer users

Professor Wolfgang Stuerzlinger hated a lot of things about his computer – namely, the fact that he couldn’t change what he didn’t like. So, he invented a program that puts the power back in users’ hands.

Left: Wolfgang Stuerzlinger

The software, which runs on the Linux operating system, works to customize existing programs to users’ exact specifications via an advanced kind of copy, cut and paste he calls “user interface facades”.

“Imagine being able to virtually cut up and reassemble elements of your interface to create a new look and feel that’s best for you,” says Stuerzlinger, a professor in York’s Department of Computer Science & Engineering.

The software allows users to reconfigure toolbars, and enhance elements like drop-down boxes and scrollbars, making them easier to use or adding to the range of functions.

“Most people use only a small percentage of all those onscreen elements, but have no easy way to blend out all that unnecessary stuff,” he says. “Research has shown that people want control over what’s on their desktop. They don’t want to be provided with more menus or options created by software developers who can’t predict their needs and aren’t interface designers in the first place.”

This is what he calls “deep customization,” and he believes it will lead not only to a more personalized computer, but also greater portability.

“In the future, this type of software could allow people to use standard desktop applications on portable devices like PDAs and cell phones. You’re basically stripping the content down to your essentials, and in the process miniaturizing your workspace,” he says.

Stuerzlinger notes that as computers become more and more integrated into our lives, we’re becoming increasingly frustrated with their apparent limitations.

“You know that movie Office Space? Where the guy drags a piece of computer equipment into a field and beats it mercilessly with his fists? I think there’s a real sense of frustration and helplessness when people realize that the machine they’re dealing with can’t be made to do what they most want or need,” he says. “Really, at the end of the day, the best interface designer is you.”

His research paper, “User Interface Façades: Towards Fully Adaptable User Interfaces,” was presented at the Association for Computing Machinery Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology earlier this month. The research was conducted jointly with InSitu, University Paris-Sud in France.

For more information and free download of software (for Linux), click here.