Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Evolution of a UI

So, it’s been a fairly annoying couple of weeks in regards to gaming and Internet access. Right as I was getting settled down from the post-launch rush and coming back to writing, escrow finally came through on our new house and, with renters lined up and waiting on our old property, we had to move as soon as possible. I very quickly found myself in a new house (woot!) with no Internet access (boo!) for two weeks until the Verizon guy could make it out. A few hours after I got back online, my video card melted down. Good times, right?
Anyway, I said all that to preface the point of this little series I’ll be working on over the next couple weeks. With my new video card I will almost certainly be toying with a higher resolution and other tweaked settings, so it makes for a good time to overhaul the UI I’ve been using and start from scratch. I’ll take a look at my existing UI and pick out what I like and what I want to fix. I’ll look at what aspects are essential to me based on preferences, group role, regular activities and how my brain processes information and try to reconcile it all with my alts, my addiction to symmetry and my somewhat limited screen space. I’ll also probably spend some time in Photoshop creating custom textures just to personalize things a bit more.
Now, let’s look at my current UI and pick it apart:
Click to zoom

This is the way things look when I’m floating around doing my dailies or hitting the auction house. The first thing that comes to mind is just how much is on screen that doesn’t really need to be, even with several elements that fade out of combat. It would be nice to get my “chilling in the city” UI to be almost a blank screen without needing to constantly hide/show things while doing my normal business. Do I need to see all of my action bars while I’m rearranging my bank in Shattrath? No, but I’d at least like easy access to the ones that hold my professions and other non-combat tools or abilities. Do I want to see them while I’m at the training dummy in Orgrimmar? I sure would like to. How about my minimap and DPS meter or my broker bar and the various things on it? There’s a lot of yes, no and maybe going on there. It’s clear to me that I’ll essentially be building three UI’s for this project. One for while I’m sitting in Dalaran talking to my guildies or crafting, another for when I’m out doing dailies, farming or what have you and a third for full raid combat scenarios.
Another thing that I see is how much unused space I have in the middle of my action bars as a result of all the ability pruning that happened in 5.0. During Cataclysm as a Destruction Warlock, I had three full twelve-button rows full of abilities, macros and other nonsense. I don't need nearly that much space anymore and can easily compress the area dedicated to buttons. Lastly, the whole package feels obnoxiously asymmetrical without the raid frames present to balance the chat box.
Click to zoom
This is the way things look during a raid situation. Obviously the biggest problem here is visual clutter. During T11 when I was using an older but similar version of this setup, my wife came up behind me as we were progressing Heroic Magmaw and said “Wow, you have a lot of crap on your screen”. Yeah, I do. How much of it is necessary, how much is there because I think it’s pretty and how much is just noise? Do I really need the IceHUD bars in the center to monitor my health and mana? Not really, I tend to watch my player frame for that. However, I do use the same bars for monitoring my Energy and Focus on my Hunter, Druid, Rogue and Monk alts. I have a problem here with multiple elements performing the same function and need to get rid of one. Does my scrolling combat text need to be visible? Yes, I want to know if I’m missing, getting evaded or if my target is immune. Does it need to be nearly so prominent? I don’t think so. It’s fun to see almost 600K in Havoc’ed Chaos Bolts fly across my screen but it’s not totally necessary. Since the overall purpose of MSBT in my UI is to clean up the appearance of the scrolling text and not to inflate my ego, I can shrink it up and push it off to the side a bit to reduce some of the visual noise. These, among other things, will need to be resolved in the final product.
Starting Over
What I always do when starting a new UI is take every element on my screen and ask myself if it’s completely necessary for my performance as a raider to have it visible. For example, when I rearranged my action bars during Firelands, I realized that I hadn’t used Banish since the early stages of Bastion of Twilight normal modes and could safely remove it from my bars, saving real estate that could be otherwise used for a combat macro. So, what do I need to have in order to function? Furthermore, due to the shape shifting nature of the new UI I'm trying to build, I also need to decide if what's on my screen is something that I'll need in combat or not. I certainly won't be hopping onto my Traveler's Mammoth or enchanting gear mid-fight, but I may need to create a new set of Healthstones or rebuff someone with Dark Intent.
Every button, every ability, every broker addon, every element. Everything needs to go under the microscope to determine if I need it, why I need it and if some other addon that I have can also perform the same function. If this was just a single use UI that I would create and leave to always look the same regardless of what character I'm on or what I'm doing, then it would simply be a matter of going down the list and deleting or disabling addons as necessary. However, since elements will be hidden, toggled or disabled based on what I'm doing, I'm going to make a simple spreadsheet. One row for each addon or element that I'm currently using and one column for each situation that I want to create a specific setup for as well as an extra column for when my alts require extra consideration (raid frames). 

Next time, we'll trim the fat on each UI and try to make a way for them all to look like parts of the whole rather than three different screens.

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