Research advice on desktop design?

I’m wondering what you would do if you were in my position: I’m designing the docking and snapping behavior for a desktop application centralized around window management. I’m trying to perform research on some best practices regarding docking groups, detaching windows, and snapping behavior, but I can’t figure out any effective methods beyond comparative research, and not many pieces of software have this behavior. I don’t want to rip-off competitor paradigms completely, but I’m also at a loss of what else to do that doesn’t involve guesswork.

I’ve considered making a prototype for user testing, but it would prove intensely difficult to replicate smooth docking behavior and resizing behavior inside of docked groups. Overall, there are a boatload of assumptions to test in terms of what people would prefer and we don’t have the time to user test all the assumptions. Also, part of me is entirely skeptical of whether I should have laymen weighing in on these very specific and nuanced interface decisions (e.g., “What should happen to these other 8 windows when this corner is dragged this way?”). I’ve been making educated guesses for what is intuitive, but I know UX isn’t supposed to be guesswork.

This underpins a larger problem I continue to have, which relates to researching desktop application behavior. I feel like I’m in a weird place because the UX universe is so web- and mobile-centric that I have a difficult time finding best practices or patterns for desktop behavior. I have a copy of About Face, but it doesn’t go in-depth enough. I’ve also looked at Apple and Microsoft’s respective guidelines for desktop/human UI behavior but they often miss the mark.

Does anyone here deal with desktop interfaces? Where have you found the most valuable research regarding desktop patterns? Does remote user research help you make nuanced decisions? How far has competitive research gotten you?

Thanks in advance.

Innovation in itself is the art of borrowing from previous successes (be it your own or others) and improving upon them. And here’s the thing about innovation in general: it will put you at the forefront of your industry, but only for a little while. Eventually, your competitors will learn to mimic and improve on innovation.

In short, they will innovate themselves.

The key here is not to rip off a competitor’s paradigm, but to borrow and improve. What makes it good? What makes it bad? And how can you improve on those designs?

UX is a tricky profession, as its birth and focus is a relatively recent development in the tech world. The nature of our jobs is fluid and ever-changing, for as the web and standard practices and technologies change, we must change along with it. Right now, there is a huge data void for these types of projects.

My suggestion to you would be to innovate on your competitors design through comparative analysis and to document your findings for the community as a whole. We as UX professionals have a duty to our industry to begin documenting and discussing these pieces to help us move forward, and you have a chance here to be at the forefront of the thought process for the industry as a whole on this particular piece.


Thank you, Doug, for your reply. I’ll admit it was way more inspiring than I was prepped for. I think my difficulties here stem from my uncertainty about the process by which ‘innovation’ is accomplished, and you’ve helped clarify that very well. I agree that the field is still very new, which can lead to these ambiguous areas of ‘guesswork’ and ‘innovation,’ etc. I very much would like to contribute to the collective growing UX literature, because I also agree that there’s a tremendous void of knowledge in the desktop design world. Do you have any suggestions beyond than writing and promoting my own blog post?


Aww shucks :slight_smile: Thank you!

Writing is a big part of it, and promoting your own blog posts helps quite a bit. If you start anywhere, start there.

I’d also suggest trying to get published in places beyond your own blog. While sharing information with the forums here is always helpful, I’d also think about:

  • Starting a topic on;
  • Attending (or even starting) a UX Meetup group in your area to present your thoughts;
  • Reaching out to leaders in the UX world-- I’ve found the community to be great, and even those at the forefront of the UX world right now are tremendously helpful and approachable;
  • Looking to see if you can get into a conference to present your thoughts (harder than a UX Meetup group, but definitely doable).

Bear in mind that all of this is great for the community as a whole, and has a wonderful added benefit of being great for your resume, too. It’s pretty apparent that you hvae an interesting and challenging UX job at the moment, but it never hurts to keep thinking about the future.

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