The Value of the User Interface in Astrology Software

by Hank Friedman

Recently, an astrologer called me with questions about astrology software. She had read my reviews, and had formed incorrect conclusions about how advanced the user interfaces were in different programs. I realized that I had not, up to now, compared programs on this criterion, nor focused upon the importance of a good user interface.

What is a user interface? It is the program's design, which determines the way the program looks and acts, and how users interact with it. A program's user interface makes a tremendous difference in how easily one can learn to use the program, how enjoyable it is to use, how accessible its features are, and what the program can enable you to do.

It's not enough, for example, for an astrology program to be powerful, there are plenty that are. It must also empower the user to grow and explore and learn and delight in astrology. And a good user interface will help you to do all that, easily.

The Early Days of the Graphic User Interface and Core Concepts

In the early 1970's, a research facility run by Xerox implemented the first Graphical User Interface (abbreviated GUI) on a personal computer. GUI's are a visual language composed of windows, menus, and icons, and use a pointing device (e.g. a mouse) to navigate the screen.

Windows are areas of the computer screen that "float", i.e. they are separate from the underlying display, and can be opened and closed, moved around, resized, and arranged to give you access to information from one or more programs. You can easily go back and forth between the windows of different programs. And the window format allows you to scroll down (move down the screen) to see more information, click on icons to open new windows, pop up help screens and hints, and to perform other functions.

Menus are ways of presenting users with a large number of functions in an organized fashion. Like a dinner menu where appetizers are in one area, drinks in another, and desserts in a third section, the menus at the top of a program's window (called pull-down menus) help you see what options are available in each screen of program, all neatly categorized.

Another very valuable menu is the context menu. Context menus only appear when you are at a specific place in a program and right-click with your mouse on the screen. Then a menu specific to the current screen appears, giving you additional choices relevant to what you're viewing.

There can also be menus within menus, i.e. you click on a menu, then click on one choice, and another "sub-menu" appears to present even more detailed choices. Good software design limits the number of menus within menus, and presents the most-used options first, to make them easily accessible.

Icons are little pictures, graphical images that you can click on to run a specific feature of a program. By presenting some functions as images instead of words, programs help you to choose the function you want quickly, the flow is smoother, and less screen space is required. E.g. in an astrology program, clicking an image of a map opens an astromapping module (and this takes up much less of the screen than the words astromapping).

The Apple Computer Company realized that a well-implemented version of Xerox's interface made programs easier to learn to use, prettier to look at, much more functional, and more fun to work with. In fact, that's why artists flocked to Macintosh computers, because the GUI facilitated working with graphics. Eventually, Microsoft followed suit with their Windows operating system. But while software programmers can create programs that conform to Windows & Mac graphical interface standards, many do not.

Astrology Programs and the Graphical Interface

Astrology programs, because they contain a lot of graphics - charts, grids, maps, graphs, animations, etc. - are much like the graphical programs for artists, and benefit greatly from a graphical interface. The more facile an astrology program is in the manipulation of and presentation of graphics, the more valuable it will be for astrologers. Since programs vary greatly in their implementation of the graphical interface, I decided to evaluate the graphical efficacy of each astrology program.

Look & Feel

Perhaps the most important consideration is each program's look and feel. If a Windows astrology program reminds you of a Mac program, or of the way your other Windows programs work, then it has succeeded in capturing the look and feel of a true graphical interface program. Consistency is the keyword: the fonts, menu organization, and program flow should be familiar, and support an intuitive and natural understanding of the program from the first time you use it.

Additional issues that I considered include:

1. Can the main program window be resized and placed anywhere on the screen?

If this is possible, then one can place the program side-by-side with a word processor, browser, etc.

2. Are charts able to be viewed independently of other screens (either on top of or side-by-side)?

Cosmic Patterns' Sirius was the first program to enable a floating chart, albeit only within the scope of their main screen. Other companies followed suit, but added the ability to create more than one floating chart, and the ability to place them anywhere on a computer screen.

For examples of just how valuable it can be to be able to arrange charts onscreen along with other astrological information, click here and read the section at the top of the page.

3. Is it possible to arrange multiple windows on the screen. E.g. can you see a chart and a transit graph and an astromap at the same time?

When an astrologer wants to consult with a client while working on their computer, it can be incredibly useful to be able to see different charts, graphs, and other kinds of astrological information on their screen at the same time. (I have a 24" monitor just for this reason.)

4. Does the program offer a Page Designer?

A page designer allows you to select whatever charts, tables, grids, chart information, and other graphics and arrange them exactly how you want them on a page, both for working with on your computer screen, and for preparing printouts.

5. In the page designer, can one drag objects around the page to arrange them, and resize them.

Not all programs have page designers, and of those that do, some allow one to grab items and arrange them on a page, which is much easier and more natural than changing numeric values (which some programs make you do).

6. In listings - e.g. of transit hits -- Are the lists presented as a graphic, so that one can click on any column and sort it by that column? For example, you might want the listing sorted by transiting planet, date, type of aspect, etc.

What if you're looking at a transit list and want to quickly see all of the transits by Pluto, but then want to see the transits by entering date? The ability to change the sorting order of a predictive listing is very valuable.

7. In customizing features of a program - like the aspect set displayed -can the mouse be used to turn items on and off.

The use of the mouse in selecting and deselecting points shown, colors used, etc. makes programs much easier to use.

8. In setting defaults (and other customizations) using the right-click menu, are features readily accessible, e.g are there only one or two sub-menus?

It can be very frustrating to search sub-menu after sub-menu after sub-menu to find the setting that you want to change. The top programs make doing this much easier by not burying features too deeply.

9. Does the program offer point-and-click interpretations?

Especially for beginners, point-and-click interpretations are quite enjoyable, and they facilitate the learning process.

10. Is an icon bar available, for fast access to different program functions? [Note: an icon bar, like the one below, shows images to click on to immediately go to specific functions of a program]

Images communicate more quickly to the brain than words do, and words also take up more screen space, so icon bars can be worthwhile.

11. If there is an icon bar, can one choose which icons to show, change their order, etc.?

It is very valuable to be able to select what icons are shown in an icon bar, i.e. omitting those that you never use, and to arrange them in whatever order you want.

12. Does the program have a consistent user interface throughout the program's various functions?

A program that uses the same methods of interacting throughout is much more friendly and useable than one that is pasted together from different modules each having their own style.

13. Does the program have context sensitive help screens?

In a well-designed astrology program, when your are looking at a particular screen and need help with it, you can press the F1 key at the top left of your keyboard, and help for that specific function will immediately appear. This is a wonderful feature for learning to use programs effectively.

After evaluating all of the top programs for their ability to fulfill all of these considerations, I created this table shows the results:

User Interface Rating
Best Good Ok
Solar Fire Gold
Regulus, Sirius Kepler, Win*Star Pro,
Millennium, ZET Geo

I chose to embolden Solar Fire Gold in recognition of its exceptional graphical user interface, and the ease-of-use and empowerment that its interface offers to astrologers.


You can also read my article comparing the features of all of the top professional astrology programs here.

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