Maximum size of a dialog box?

Subject: Maximum size of a dialog box?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L Whirlers <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, sulbha bahl <sbahl -at- ansoft -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 15 Jul 2008 10:09:47 -0400

Sulbha Bahl wondered: <<I was recently asked by the QA dept if there
was a rule to define the maximum size of a dialog box? And that would
work for all environments.?>>

There is no absolute rule, and certainly not one that would apply to
"all environments"; every environment differs, and information-heavy
dialogs must obviously be larger than simple dialogs. Most office
workers, for instance, will be using 17-inch or larger monitors,
whereas laptop users will rarely be using anything larger than 15-
inch wide screens and CAD engineers are unlikely to be using anything
smaller than 24 inches. Fill the screen with as much detailed
information as a CAD engineer needs and the office worker and laptop
user will curse your name. Ditto for the CAD user if you create 5000
tiny dialogs just to make your office workers stop cursing. <g>

Some audience analysis would help. For instance, if you know that
your audience consists only of the CAD workers, and that the product
requirements specify a minimum 24-inch screen at a resolution of X by
Y, then you can safely treat that as your maximum size. But if you
don't know who will be using the software, you need to think more in
terms of "lowest common denominator". That's likely to be the smaller
of the two dimensions (both horizontally and vertically) for the 17-
inch monitor/15-inch laptop that represent the smallest screens in
your audience. You can also design for the needs of 80% of your users
and ignore the remaining 20%, but why piss off 20% of your audience
if you don't have to?

<<Some of our dialog boxes are so big that on some machines (Unix/
Linux), the users can't see the entire dialog box. These are not
resizable either.>>

That's simply bad design. Among other things, I'll bet that the same
people who "designed" (to misuse a word) these dialogs didn't spend
any time arranging their contents logically either. You need an
information designer who can show you how to reorganize information
logically. Tabbed interfaces, with "Advanced..." buttons to reveal
the less commonly used features on each tab, are a good solution.
Check out how InDesign and Word implement this and you'll see a good

You might also be interested in an article I wrote about this
(unfortunately not available on my Web site, though it's been long
enough I should ask the publisher for permission):
Hart, G.J.S. 2003. Redesigning to make better use of screen real
estate. Pages 337–350 in M.J. Albers and B. Mazur, editors. Content
and complexity: information design in technical communication.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ. 368 p.

-- Geoff Hart
ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca / geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com
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Maximum size of a dialog box?: From: sulbha bahl

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