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The Art of Unix Programming
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Unix Programming - Studying Cases - Case Study: kmail

Case Study: kmail

kmail is the GUI mailreader distributed with the KDE environment. The kmail UI is tastefully and well designed, with many good features including automatic display of enclosed images in a MIME multipart and support for PGP key encryption/decryption. It is friendly to end-users — my beloved but nontechie wife uses and enjoys it.

Many mail user agents make one gesture in the direction of discoverability by having a command that toggles display of all the mail headers, as opposed to a select few like From and Subject. The UI of kmail takes this a long step further.

A running kmail displays status notifications in a one-line subwindow at the bottom of its window, in small type over a steel-gray background clearly modeled on the Netscape/Mozilla status bar. When you open a mailbox, for example, the status bar displays counts of total and unread messages. The visual presentation is unobtrusive; it is easy to ignore the notifications, but also easy to focus on them if you want to.

The kmail GUI is good user-interface design. It's informative, but not distracting; it gets around the reason we adduce in Chapter11 that the best policy for Unix tools operating normally is usually silence. The authors showed excellent taste in borrowing the look and feel of the browser status bar.

But the extent of the kmail developers' tastefulness will not become clear until you have to troubleshoot an installation that is having trouble sending mail. If you watch closely during the send, you will observe that each line of the SMTP transaction with the remote mail transport is echoed into the kmail status bar as it happens.

The kmail developers neatly avoid a trap that often makes GUI programs like kmail a terrible pain in a troubleshooter's fundament. Most design teams with kmail's objectives would have suppressed those messages entirely, fearing that they would give Aunt Tillie a touch of the vapors that would drive her back to the meretricious pseudo-simplicity of a Windows box.

Instead, they designed for transparency — they made the transaction messages show, but also made them visually easy to ignore. By getting the presentation right, they managed to please both Aunt Tillie and her geeky nephew Melvin who fixes her computer problems. This was brilliant; it's a technique other GUI interfaces could and should emulate.

Ultimately, of course, the visibility of those messages is good for Aunt Tillie, because they mean Melvin is far less likely to throw up his hands in frustration while trying to solve her email problems.

The lesson here is clear. Dumbing down your UI is only the half-smart thing to do. The really smart thing is to find a way to leave the details accessible, but make them unobtrusive.


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The Art of Unix Programming
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