There’s More to UIs Than What’s On Screen

Computer users usually associate the term “User Interface” with what is seen on the computer screen, because that is, literally, what’s right there in front of your nose. The following comment by Flickr user SabrinaK is a good reminder, however, that there is more to the UI than just WIMPs (windows, icons, menus, and pointers). Sabrina writes thusly:

I’m also always thoroughly enjoying [entering] the ñ. On my laptop, I always have to first hit the Fn key, then activate the numeric key pad, and finally type Alt-0241. I should start writing Makros.

And a bit further down on the page, she points out:

[…] I find it even worse to write German on an English keyboard than writing Spanish on a German one…

Name That Key Code!

Indeed, if you write in a language that uses characters outside of the original 7-bit ASCII character set, entering these characters is a tedious process: for each and every character, you need to type in its key code on the numerical keyboard while pressing the Alt-key. To help you find the required key code, you can resort to a little application displaying all available characters — in a huge scrolling palette.

Finding special characters on Windows

That is, if you’re using a Windows box: on a PC running Windows, the keyboard essentially has only two layers, and you switch between the two by pressing or releasing the Shift key. In other words, what you can type directly is what you see printed on the key caps. All other characters require following the key code method.

On the Macintosh, the Alt- , or Option-, key serves as another layer switch, so you get an additional two layers on the keyboard, which contain a selection of more commonly used special characters, e.g. currency symbols beyond the Dollar, diacritical marks like the tilde “~” or the caret “^”, and a number of special glyphs like delta “?”, etc. The Keyboard Viewer utility lets you see each of the four layers of characters.

Finding special characters on Mac OS X

So, say you want to type a bullet point “•”. Instead of entering an abstract key code, you simply type Option-ü1. When it comes to typing letters with diacritical marks like accents or the tilde, OS X takes this approach a step further.

It Takes Two (Keys), Baby.

In the Keyboard Viewer image above, you can see two orange keys. When pressing these keys — called “accent mark keys” in Apple speak –, the respective marks will not appear as characters in the text you’re writing, but will be added to the character you type next. For example, if you would like to type an “n” with a tilde, you would first press Option-n for the tilde, then type “n”, and you’d get this: ñ.

As for SabrinaK’s complaint about typing German on an English keyboard, the double-dots for the German “umlauts” are accessed via Option-u (“u” as in “umlaut”? How much thought did these guys put into this?!). As an example, Option-u followed by “A” will result in “Ä”. With there being three umlauts in German — ä, ö, ü –, you can either:

A – Remember six key codes (three each for uppercase and lowercase) and, whenever you want to type one of the umlauts, type Alt- on the numeric keypad, which you’d have to activate and deactivate for every character you type when using a laptop.

Or:

B – Remember that Option-u will “arm” your keyboard for typing an umlaut, and follow that with “a”, “A”, “o”, “O”, “u” or “U” as needed. What’s more, this will also work for the remaining two vowels, so typing “naïve” properly is just as straight-forward. All in all, one key combination to remember instead of ten key codes.

Look Beyond the Computer Screen

Admittedly, this article may come across as merely another Mac OS X vs. Windows comparison, but there is more to it, as the important thing is to realize that what constitutes “the” user interface is not just what we see on screen. UI is about all channels that we use to feed data and commands into the machine, and to have the machine feed information back to us.

Despite all the discussion about UI screen design standards, it’s equally important to keep an eye on the other means of human-machine interaction as well. Easily entering special characters is just one of them. Others include defining intuitive, easy-to-remember keyboard shortcuts; adding meaningful sound cues to an application; or providing mouse gestures as alternatives to key commands in applications that already involve heavy use of the mouse.

It’s refining UI details well beyond pixel-pushing that can make the difference between “simple and effective” and “awkward and annoying.”


  1. All key combinations listed here are taken from the German OS X keyboard layout. They may differ on other layouts. 

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