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Skizz

Discussion about Splitters (UI Design)

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Let me start off by describing the application I'm currently working on. The application is a helper tool for analysing data. The main form of the application is divided into three sections. The left hand panel is a list of items that can be analysed. The top right panel is a treeview display all the data for the item selected in the left hand list. The bottom right panel is a graph displaying part of the data in the treeview. Between each panel is a moveable splitter control, forming a 'T' shape on its side. The rational for using the splitter is to allow the user to view the graph in more detail, at the expense of a usable tree view and list. The user may want to change the item in the treeview that is displayed in the graph panel. I think this will lead to the following steps: move splitter to expand treeview, search treeview, select item of interest, move splitter to view graph, manipulate graph (graph can zoom and pan). It is highly likely the user will regularly switch between items in the treeview and the list. Now the discussion point. Is this a good use of the splitter control? Should a UI be designed such that regular use of the splitter is essential? Or is this a sign of a bad design? I've had a brief search for discussions on this issue but all I've come up with are tutorials on how to add splitters to forms. Personally, I think it is bad UI design to have to rely on splitter behaviour to use the application, it adds extra steps for the user in order to acomplish the task in hand. In fact, I can't even think of an application where I've actually used a splitter (Word, Outlook, Visio, DevStudio) beyond initial layout tweaking, which is what I think a splitter is really for - infrequent/initial tweaks. In my application, I think that a toggle between a single graph view and the graph/tree/list combination would be a better design. Thoughts? Skizz

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I'd say go with a toggle between the two; if you can see it being helpful to your users to see both views at the same time, have some kind of "expand" button that automatically resizes the splitters so emphasize one or the other of the views. I can't think of a way to make that really intuitive off the top of my head, but it's the best thing I can come up with to salvage a splitter-based design. Personally, I think multipane UIs are generally indicative of sloppy design habits, so IMHO definitely avoid the splitter setup if you can do so cleanly and elegantly.

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Does the user really need the list and/or treeview while viewing the graph (to change items quickly?), or a small summary of the selected item suffices? Such a read-only summary could, on mouseover, hide the graph and display the list and treeview, hiding them and bringing back the graph as soon as a selection is made or the mouse returns from the list and treeview to the summary. The same switching can happen with keyboard commands: focus on treeview (and show treeview and list), focus on list (and show treeview and list), new selection (and show graph), focus on graph (and show graph).

Better yet, buying a second monitor for each user would work better for this problem, would be useful for other purposes, and might cost less than unpleasant or very complex software.

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