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Widgets to the Rescue

We'd be lost without those little tools that serve a limited, but invaluable, purpose.

The other day I needed the drill, so I went down into the basement to find it. I almost panicked when I saw that the widget that tightens the drill bit into the drill -- what's it called? the chuck key? -- yes, that's it. The chuck key was missing. It's usually attached to the cord with a little plastic tether. Fortunately, I found it rattling around in the bottom of the tool chest and quickly tethered it back to the drill's electrical cord.

There are a lot of software widgets just like that chuck key -- little tools that serve a limited, but indispensable, purpose. And they're handiest when stored, for easy access, just where they're needed. For example, click the right mouse button just about anywhere in almost any application, and you'll get a context-sensitive menu of options. We've come to expect these at-your-service widgets and would feel lost without them.

Figure 1. Context-Sensitive Menu Widget in Microsoft Internet Explorer.
Screenshot: A context sensiitive menu in Microsoft Internet Explorer.

But these handy little tools weren't always at our fingertips. I first met up with context-sensitive menus in the mid-to-late 1980s, when my operating system was DOS and my spreadsheet of choice was Quattro Pro. Borland's inclusion of these little widgets in Quattro Pro was sheer genius, and I pushed their use to every developer I knew. The response was always negative; reasons offered ran along the lines of "not standard" or "too much work." 

Not standard? Of course not. By definition, new ideas are not standard!

Too much work? For whom? Certainly not for the users who, after all, buy software to help reduce their workloads.

As software developers, we have plenty of opportunity to invent little widgets to make our programs easier to understand and use. Let's take a look at some other shining examples.

Memory joggers

With every new release, Microsoft Visual Basic's language has gotten more complex. I've found it increasingly difficult to remember object properties, function parameters, and the like. So I was thrilled when, in VB5, Microsoft came to my rescue with a couple of new memory jogging widgets.

Figure 2. Auto Completion Widget in Microsoft Visual Basic 6.0.
Screenshot: An auto completion widget in Microsoft Visual Basic 6.0.

This little widget pops up as soon as I type the period after an object, showing me all of the object's properties and methods. I can scroll the list if need be, or I can begin typing and the list will scroll to match my keystrokes. In the above illustration, if I press the enter key after typing fonts, my typing will be completed automatically, with FontSize taking the place of fonts.

Figure 3. Auto Prompt Widget in Microsoft Visual Basic 6.0.
Screenshot: An auto prompt widget in Microsoft Visual Basic 6.0.

Similarly, when I type the open parenthesis after a function, Visual Basic automatically prompts me with a list of valid parameters, formatted to help me remember which parameters are required and which are optional. Very handy!

Visualizing graphics options

Microsoft Office 2000 incorporates AutoShapes into most of its suite of applications, offering over 100 different shapes. Imagine how difficult it would be to pick the right shape if they were organized into text-only menu items. Fortunately, Microsoft realized that if an application offered a useful combination of graphics and text, its users would have a much easier time finding their desired shape.

Figure 4. AutoShapes Widget in Microsoft Office 2000.
Screenshot: An autoshapes widget in Microsoft Office 2000.

Microsoft went a step further in PhotoDraw 2000, a tool loaded with graphical special effects, by incorporating visual menus into its toolbar buttons.

Figure 5. Visual Menu Widget in Microsoft PhotoDraw 2000.
Screenshot: A visual menu widget in Microsoft PhotoDraw 2000.

These chunky pictures may not be standard, but who cares? They help users understand exactly what effect each option offers, and that's what matters. 

Widgets rule

Just like my drill's chuck key, software widgets need to be both close to and customized for the task at hand. When they meet these requirements, there's nothing like a handy little widget.

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