Tabbed dialogs in Java

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Tabbed dialogs
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A number of years back, tabbed dialogs quickly became an established standard in the world of commercial software. The idiom, while quite useful at times, has also become an unfortunately convenient way for programmers to jam a whole pile of vaguely related functions into a dialog box.
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Part III: Designing Interaction Details
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On a positive note, many domain or application objects with numerous properties can now have correspondingly rich property dialog boxes without making those boxes excessively large and crowded with controls (see Figure 24-8 for an example). Many function dialogs that were previously jam-packed with controls now make better use of their space. Before tabbed dialogs, the problem was often clumsily solved with expanding and cascading dialogs, which we ll discuss shortly.
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Figure 24-8 This is a tabbed dialog box from iTunes. Combining the different properties of a song in one dialog box is effective for users because they have a single place to go to find such things. Note that the terminating controls are correctly placed outside the tabbed pane, in the lower right.
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A tabbed dialog allows programmers to cram more controls into a single dialog box, but more controls won t necessarily mean that users will find the interface easier to use or more powerful. The contents of the various tabs must have a meaningful rationale for being together, otherwise this capability is just another way to build a product according to what is easy for programmers, rather than what is good for users.
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24: Dialogs
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The tabs in a dialog should be organized to provide either increased depth or increased breadth on a well-defined topic. To organize for breadth, each tab should cover parallel, alternate aspects of the primary topic, the way song properties from iTunes, shown in Figure 24-8, addresses a variety of properties and settings for the song that would be unwieldy in a single pane. In the case of organizing for more depth, each tab should probe the same aspect of one topic in greater depth. The commonly employed Advanced tab is an example of this strategy. Tabs are successful because the idiom follows many users mental model of how things are normally stored. The various controls are grouped in several parallel panes, one level deep. But this idiom is often abused. Because it s easy to cram so many controls into a tabbed dialog, the temptation is great to add more and more tabs to a dialog. The Options dialog in Microsoft Word, shown in Figure 24-9, is a clear example of this problem. The 10 tabs are far too numerous to show in a single line, so they are stacked two deep. The problem with this idiom, called stacked tabs, is that a user has to do a fairly significant amount of work to find the single option she wants to change. While the labels of the tabs may give her some help, she is still forced to scan the contents of several tabs while switching between them. And if that isn t enough, when she clicks on a tab in the back row, the entire row of tabs moves forward, shunting the other two rows to the back. Very few users seem to be happy with this it s disconcerting to click on a tab and then have it move out from under the mouse.
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DESIGN principle
All interaction idioms have practical limits.
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Stacked tabs illustrate the following axiom of user-interface design: All idioms, regardless of their merits, have practical limits. A group of 5 radio buttons may be excellent, but a group of 50 of them is ridiculous. Five or six tabs in a row are fine, but adding enough tabs to require stacking greatly reduces the usefulness of the idiom. A better alternative would be to use several separate dialogs with fewer tabs on each. In this example, Options is just too broad a category, and lumping all this functionality in one place isn t doing users any favors. There is little connection among the 12 panes, so there is little need to move among them. This solution may lack a certain programming elegance, but it is much better for users.
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