Current UI

Here is a poorly designed panel on a preferences dialog for the open source audio editor 'Audacity'. I'd like to do something about it.

Wordy Preferences Dialog

How it got that way

In the past the text beside the radio buttons was short and cryptic. So many users were getting seriously unstuck with these options, we felt we had to put some more text there. Even at the time we made these changes to "Audacity", we were worried that it was becoming "Verbosity".

With the more wordy text it is still not 100% clear what these options do or why you would choose them. More explanation is needed. I want to trim the button text down back down to the short cryptic version, and design a nice way to present the detailed help text for each option.

Context Help in same Window

In line with answers to this question about context sensitive help in general, and my own instincts, pop-ups are out. So standard tooltips on hover, or a 'tell-me-more' link to open a new window aren't acceptable solutions.

I want a solution that is in the same window, and that makes it clear which text applies to which options. There is going to be more text than can fit in, so something is going to have to scroll or concertina...

Below is the preference panel for keyboard preferences. We're more space constrained here:

Keyboard Preferences

I want the user to be able to discover what 'Split Cut' means from the preferences panel. I'd like the context sensitive help to work 'in the same way' here.

How can I rearrange things to get the context sensitive help in?

4 Answers 4


How about this?

Export settings

and this Keyboard shortcuts

Also, I think that if you break down the list on the left to a few labeled logical groups, it will be a great improvement.

  • I like the way you've got rid of the Set and Clear buttons very much and brought the key combo setting into the list. I'm now looking at how to make the help box bigger - losing the 'note:' text in Import/Export (it will end up in it) and stacking the load-save-defaults buttons. Mar 15, 2011 at 10:17
  • Thanks @James! I admit it didn't occur to me to stack the buttons, but now that I do think about it, I don't think it will do much good. The height that you gain is roughly equivalent to the width that you lose, and your text just becomes broken down into more lines that are shorter. You might actually lose some text because of wrapping. And it seems to me that regardless of the other issues, it makes more sense that those buttons be laid out horizontally rather than stacked. Mar 15, 2011 at 10:50
  • Another option is moving the L/S/D buttons below the line (and at the same time extending the page-selector panel downwards). Mar 15, 2011 at 10:56

My last real job involved a lot of this kind of work. There was never an easy answer. It's just a matter of carefully looking at everything and trying to consolidate and represent every option in the most concise manner. You can then supplement the areas that need further explanation with help text.

As for the Import / Export preferences, there are a couple things I noticed. I see there's also an "Extended Import" section. So one thought would be to change things up by making two distinct preferences sections: "Import" and "Export". If you do that then the "When exporting..." text becomes redundant and could be removed.

After further simplification you could end up with something like this... enter image description here

I'm thinking that the rollover help could be triggered by the entire zone of a particular setting. So the "Channels" grouping could be a rollover zone which triggers the help.

  • Very helpful. Text on the right is going to work better than text below, and this gives a way to visually link them. I hadn't realized until I saw this that I don't need to take the whole of a right hand column for help text. Also, as you've shown it, I'd be fine with that rollover help jutting out over the edge of the window a bit. Mar 15, 2011 at 10:22


Basically, what Steve said. Just a few variants to consider:

three is company

The advantage of all these solutions: you can leave your dialog as is, you just need to build a table Dialog ID - Control ID - Help Text. This usually beats all alternatives.

My general approach

Generally, I advocate to avoid preferences:

  • move preferences that affect processing to the place where the processing is accessed.
  • avoid preferences that affect details of the user interface (unless there's no way you cannot put it in)
  • Make preferences accessible locally where they have an effect

This is "easy" only for a new product, and may not be possible anymore for audacity and its user base.

I don't argue against a centralized dialog where all options are available, but all features should be accessible without. A "preference accumulator" is also very valuable to export and import settings.

Using the same Dialog / Panel locally as in the settings dialog helps a lot (or one that looks like).


I had the pleasure of watching a novice user approach Audacity lately. My general impression is that some options cater to users with the expertise of audio software developers, and they mix with "normal user" options. My impression of her was "intimidated": her task was challenging enough, she was pointed to audacity to deal with a mediocre detail (cleaning up the recorded audio a bit), not worth a lot of investigation or discussion. So it's good to see you guys try to improve :)

Loking at some actual Audacity options, (I probably shouldn't cover them all here, it's already much to long...):

Playback device + Playback settings should be available "near the playback button". This might be accessible through Shift+Click, Right-Click (immediate or popup menu), or a small button near. The click variants can be announced in a tooltip. Similar for recording.

The same goes for Recording, which also should give access to the recording quality. Recording settings are already accessible for "Import Raw".

When importing the WAV, Quality can't be changed. This is good since you have a seinsible default - but it's hard to change after the fact. Double/right-click on the "Stereo, 44.1kHz, 32 bit float" indicator could get you there. (This is only partly preference related: avoid asking for options when the user can fix it later)

I don't know what to do with "Sound architecture". Two things bug me:

  • The decision affects both playback and recording (this might be an architectural limitation)
  • this decision is hard to make for most users.
  • It's not easy to fix because it affects the "common" options of playback / recoding devices

If you are not familiar with audio architectures on your platform, or have expert guidance, it's one of those "try random buttons until it works" options. It helps to label one of the settings "(default)" - usually the less error prone.

You already indicate the audio library used - again, helpful for experts, not so much for average users. Yet, there's nothing you can thell them "Higher quality, Less Latency" would be helpful - but they can't be generalized, obviously. "Pick the one that doesn't stutter or click" could help.

"Interface/Ergonomic order of Audio I/O buttons": Took me a a few tries to understand the difference. This is a typical "I prefer / you prefer" - option. There are few reasons to actually allow such an option:

  • Your user base is so opinionated they won't use your product if it has the "wrong" button order
  • You have a long history of order A, but need to support order B, alienating your existing users, leadign to above
  • your best developer threatens to quit if you don't use "his" style

Otherwise: decide, and throw it out. If it needs to stay in, make it accessible locally. (e.g. right-click).

(The option you have chosen is IMO still better than letting the suer arrange the buttons. users don't want to arrange buttons, they want to record and play audio.)

Show "How to get help" on program start - Again, the effect of this option is not easily predictable unless you remember that dialog at startup. I'd recommend to make the Welcome dialog accessible through "Help", where the user can change this option. (I'd invert the checkbox to "show this everytime Audacity starts", but that might be a personal preference).

The "dB Range" option seems misplaced, and should be accessible through the "Audio Track" popup menu.

The remaining "Interface" options make sense, they affect overall aspects of the application.

  • 1
    Thanks. Yes 'ergonomic order' button has to go. It's silly. Adding (default) would be good too. We've toyed with having 'advanced' options, for the reasons you mention, but I think that's a question in its own right as different people have different ideas of what is 'advanced'. Mar 15, 2011 at 10:32

I suggest adding a third area on the right that displays a description on mouse-over. So basically the same as Vitaly, but on the right. Then it flows nicely from left to right (it is gentle on the eyes). Any user would figure out pretty quickly how it works.

Also, I think one reason the current interface looks a bit cluttered is because the line spacing is too small. As line length increases, line spacing should too.

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