Modeless Dialog Boxes in Java

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The other variety of dialog box is called modeless. Modeless dialogs are less common than their modal siblings. After the modeless dialog opens, the parent program continues without interruption. It does not stop the proceedings, and the application does not freeze. The various facilities and controls, menus, and toolbars of the main program remain active and functional. Modeless dialogs have terminating commands, too, although the conventions for them are far weaker and more confusing than for modal dialogs.
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Part III: Designing Interaction Details
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A modeless dialog box is a much more difficult beast to use and understand, mostly because the scope of its operation is unclear. It appears when you summon it, but you can go back to operating the main program while it stays around. This means that you can change the selection while the modeless dialog box is still visible. If the dialog acts on the current selection, you can select, change, select, change, select, and change all you want. For example, Microsoft Word s Find and Replace dialog allows you to find a word in text (which is automatically selected), make edits to that word, and then pop back to the dialog, which has remained open during the edit. In some cases, you can also drag objects between the main window and a modeless dialog box. This characteristic makes them really effective as tool or object palettes in drawing programs.
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Modeless dialog issues
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Many modeless dialogs are implemented awkwardly. Their behavior is inconsistent and confusing. They are visually very similar to modal dialog boxes, but they are functionally very different. There are few established behavioral conventions for them, particularly with respect to terminating commands. Much of the confusion creeps into the situation because users are so familiar with the behavior of modal dialogs. A modal dialog can adjust itself for the current selection at the instant it was summoned. It can do this with assurance that the selection won t change during its lifetime. Conversely, the selection is quite likely to change during the lifetime of a modeless dialog box. Then what should the dialog do For example, if a modeless dialog box modifies text, what should it do if we now select some nontext object on the main window Should gizmos on the dialog box gray out Change Disappear Questions such as this require refined design practices, as well as close examination of persona needs, goals, and mental models. Consequently, modeless dialogs can be much more challenging to design and implement than modal dialogs, which avoid these issues by freezing application state.
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Two solutions for better modeless dialogs
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We offer two design strategies for improving modeless dialogs. The first one is easy to swallow, a stopgap for common predicaments. The second one is more radical; an evolutionary step forward. The first solution is less thorough and effective than the second one. As you might guess, we prefer the evolutionary step. (Luckily, as you will see, in recent years, many other designers have already generated some momentum in this direction.)
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24: Dialogs
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A stopgap solution
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If you have limited time and resources to deal with interaction design issues, we recommend leaving modeless dialog boxes pretty much the way they are, but adopting two guiding principles and applying them consistently to all modeless dialog boxes.
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DESIGN principle
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Visually differentiate modeless dialogs from modal dialogs.
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If a programmer uses the standard modeless dialog box facility in the Windows API, the resultant dialog is visually indistinguishable from a modal one. We must break this habit. The designer must assure that all modeless dialog boxes are rendered with a clearly noticeable visual difference. Possible methods include using a different background, making the controls visually distinct, or using a different color title bar or icon. Whatever method you choose, you must consistently stick with it. The second principle says that we must adopt consistent and correct conventions for the terminating commands. It seems that each vendor, sometimes each programmer, uses a different technique on each individual dialog box. There isn t any reason for this cacophony of methods. Some dialogs say Close, some say Apply, some use Done, while others use Dismiss, Accept, Yes, and even OK. The variety is endless. Still others dispense with terminating buttons altogether and rely only upon the Close box in the title bar. Terminating a modeless dialog box should be a simple, easy, consistent idiom, very similar if not exactly the same from program to program.
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