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What if MATLAB had only 4 buttons?

Yesterday I went to the Apple Store to drool over the new iPod Touch. Playing around with its applications I was reminded of a scene in the recent web production: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog. In one scene Dr Horrible controls a van using 10-button app on his iPhone.

I’ve recreated that UI below, in a purposely-stylized sketch. Is this UI sufficient to drive a vehicle? My automatic ’03 Ford Taurus has well over 60 buttons, dials, levers, etc. factory-installed within arm’s length of the driver. That’s a lot more than Dr. Horrible’s controller.

Dr. Horrible's Controls

This got me thinking, what if Matlab had only a few buttons? What are the essential functions that one would need?

I took a sample of my co-workers (based on who was at his/her desk at the time) and gave them 30-seconds to come up with their version of the four-button MATLAB. I took down their first four or five thoughts. As you can see, there are some patterns.

Will (usability): Will chose Data Import, Edit, Plot, Export Variable, with a runner-up of “call technical support (not an actual feature)”.

Import, Edit, Plot, Export

Ken: Ken’s choices were Run, Save, Help, and New M-File

Run, Save, Help, New

Linda (documentation): The Current Directory, Preferences, Command History (not real icon), M-Lint, with a runner-up of Help.

directory, preferences, history, mlint

Dan: Help, Halt Execution (not real icon), New M-File, Open File

help, break, new, open

Zain: Help, Editor, Plot, Path tool (not real icon)

help, edit, plot, path

Adam & Ammar (technical support): Save, New M-File, Help, Open, runner-up: Command History

save, new, help, open

Jiro (application engineering): Start, Up One Directory, Plot, Run M-File

start, up, plot, run

I also had to ask Seth, to make sure the Simulink side of things is represented.
Surprise, suprise, Seth chose: Simulink, the Editor, Help, and Exit MATLAB (not real icon).

simulink, editor, help, exit

I think he went with “Exit” because I caught him trying to wrap up and go home for the weekend. I also let him have Shortcuts, which violates the spirit of this exercise, but I think it demonstrates one good point: MATLAB is too complex for us to please everybody with just one subset of tools, and that is why we try to make it is customizable as possible.

Finally, Mike: At first I came up with M-Lint, Editor, Run, and Import. I also wanted Help and the Web Browser. I also cheated and added a Command-Line.

M-Lint, Editor, Run, and Import with Command Line

If your MATLAB had only four buttons, what would you choose?

PS: And no, don’t expect any sing-a-longs on the Desktop blog, but you may be able to get Doug to sing for beer. :)

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