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I'm in the process of redesigning one of my older desktop applications. The original design I did was based on a 640 X 480 screen. Times have changed and there several different screen resolutions available.

So, should I design my desktop application so it has the same look and feel as a website or should it look like a traditional desktop application?

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3 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Should you design your laptop computer to have the look and feel of a TV?

As a general rule, a desktop app should look and feel like a desktop app. Many of the design standards and conventions for desktop apps evolved to maximize their usability for the kinds of tasks and conditions these apps are used for, namely heavy and varied input into a fast updating interface. Many web site standards and conventions, in contrast, evolved to maximize their usability for their kinds of tasks and conditions, namely relatively passively viewing of content in a slow updating interface.

The following are some things to avoid that are typical of web sites and web apps:

  • Over-use of multi-step wizard-like UIs.

  • Lack of edit-in-place.

  • Multi-page UIs. Generally multi-window UIs work better for apps.

  • Excess clutter with minimally relevant controls.

  • Lack of an object-selection-action model.

  • Multiple page lists rather than scrolling for large amounts of content.

  • Lack of scrollable panes within a window (e.g., for tables so the headers stay in view).

  • Lack of expert support like accelerators, multi-selections, drag-and-drop, pointer tools, context menus, and double-clicking.

However, there are several things about web sites that are worth importing into desktop apps:

  • Use of variable font and graphics to indicate relative importance and visual hierarchy in form-type UIs.

  • Links to distinguish controls that merely navigate from command buttons that actually affect the data

  • In-window error messages which better orient users to the source of the problem than the message boxes typical of desk top apps.

  • In-window hints and links to provide better contextual help than that from an isolated Help menu item.

Certainly, you can also design for higher screen resolutions in any case. Maybe you even want to borrow the “liquid layout” concept from the web so users can resize their window however is best for them.

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Liquid layout is a must and it's on my list. I'll be spending time in your blog, thanks. –  Cape Cod Gunny Nov 22 '11 at 3:24
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I guess to truly answer this we'd need more information. Specifically:

  • what is your definition of the look and feel of a web vs. desktop app?
  • what does your app do?
  • what advantages to you see of using one over the other?

Barring that information, my gut reaction is that web apps should look and feel like web apps because they are web apps. As such, a desktop app should look and feel like a desktop app because it is a desktop app.

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Your gut reaction is what I'm most interested in. I've got a very stable (no bugs), single use, financial application that has not been through a redesign in 8 years. It's dated and stuck in a 640 X 480 box. I spent 8 of the past 11 years coding the backend of websites... design and layout was done by others. I need to upgrade my software so it's more inline with todays look and feel. It will stay a desktop application so it needs to look and feel like a desktop application. (Your gut reaction same as mine). Most of the discussion I have been following is based on web design not desktop. –  Cape Cod Gunny Nov 21 '11 at 21:42
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Many web applications try to emulate their desktop counterparts. Since desktop apps have been around much longer, users are more familiar with the different tools and conventions. I can imagine that your IDE contains build in tools and widgets (buttons, grids, lists) that have been used by many popular desktop applications.

If you like the way websites behave and look, i would suggest creating a web application. Otherwise it will be easier to stick with the desktop style app.

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