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First of all:

  • With "context-free controls" I refer to controls whose behavior is independent of the selected tab.

  • With "context-sensitive controls" I refer to controls whose behavior is dependent of the selected tab.

To illustrate what I am meaning, let's look at an example:

mockup

The picture above shows a program I am currently working on (for this illustration I modified the picture a bit). It will be able to generate a schedule on a specific planning problem.

There are three sections: The tabs, the Schedule of the selected tab and a Toolbar.

There are two different schedules, let's call them Schedule 1 and Schedule 2. In the picture the tab Schedule 1 is currently open, the UI of Schedule 2 looks the same (except having a different schedule). The tab Schedule 1+2 shows the two schedules in a split screen without the Toolbar below.

These two schedules together are called a campaign and it is possible to save/load such a campaign to/from the hard disk.

The Toolbar consists of 4 sections: Generation, Campaign, Export (as an image) and the name of the loaded campaign.

Generation refers only to the schedule which is currently selected, Campaign to both of the schedules, Export also only to the selected schedule and the name (as stated above) to the loaded campaign.

Now to the essence: I don't think it is the best idea to put all these controls in one Toolbar like this. The main reason is (like the title indicates) context (and with that I mean the selected schedule). Campaign refers to both schedules, thus not to the current context like Generation does.

I really would like to omit a menu bar which would be an idea where to put Campaign.

The summarized question(s):

Is it really a good idea to mix context-sensitive controls with context-free controls in a toolbar? What would be an appropriate approach to solve this UI design problem?

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Depending on how many tabs you have, their physical width, and the number of controls you need to present, you could put them along the top of the pane, as with the Create New Version button below:

enter image description here

It seems likely you would want to organize things differently, perhaps grouping the controls in a different manner. You might split out the identifier ("My campaign") from the controls, perhaps using it in a higher-level spot above the tabbed panel, and include campaign-level controls there, and put more schedule-specific controls on the panel. Here is a very quick example, if I am interpreting your description correctly:

enter image description here

This would also allow you to better control the vertical height of your content, and keep the controls "above the fold" (still an important concept, depending on your users).

  • Thanks, your answer will help to improve the UI. (You interpreted my description correct, except that Configure belongs to the selected schedule. Configure is the initial configuration that is needed to generate a schedule. So I think Configure would fit more to Export and Generate.) – Michael Langhammer Aug 11 '16 at 8:56
  • My pleasure - good luck with your redesign! – Mattynabib Aug 11 '16 at 12:42

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