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Interaction Happens: Thinking Graphically

July 12, 2005


Example 1: Address Detail Panel
Example 2: Frame Title Abuse!
Example 3: Information Messages
   Writing Your own Message Bubble

Making a polished user interface is hard work. Interaction
design takes experience and time, which are usually inconceivable
luxuries. And that's before we mention the technical limitations in
Swing, which we are all too familiar with. On top of that,
programming and interaction design are often at direct odds with
each other. Making a polished, functioning interface can take
much more code (and much more complicated code) than
a less-polished alternative. Similarly, developing with graphics
toolkits and widgets often forces the implementation to use a less
than perfect solution from an interaction perspective. The combined
effect of these forces is a difficult playing field where we try to
solve these problems and develop a product.

This article takes a holistic view at the problem space. We'll
take a look at three different user interface design issues from an
interaction perspective. Following that, we'll look at an
interaction design solutions to these problems that I've used and
seen others use on countless projects. Finally, we'll implement
them in Swing, exploring the technical details of implementing
these designs. The goal is to understand, through practical
examples, that there is a single problem space from interaction
design to code. Along the way, you'll also see some code examples
of Swing techniques you may not have used before, but might find
interesting (think transparent painting and rounded borders).

Example 1: Address Detail Panel

A common way to display detailed information is to create a
panel with one label per field, and the field displayed alongside
it. Figure 1 shows an example of one of these panels for address
details of someone named "What A. Guy."

"316" alt="Figure 1" />

Figure 1. Standard details panel displaying an address

Although it's easy to create a one-to-one mapping between the
address fields and this panel, there are a number of interaction
issues with this design.

  • Difficult alignment: In this example, the
    field names are all right-aligned, but their lengths vary. Some
    field names have more space between the end of the field name and
    the beginning of the value, making it difficult to correlate the
    field name and the value. Some interaction designers prefer to
    right align the field name and left align the value, but then your
    detail panels start to look an awful lot like ASCII Christmas
    trees. You can improve the alignment significantly by standardizing
    the field name length (say, between five and ten characters) but it's still
    going to be awkward.
  • Waste of space: As explained above, the field
    names are different lengths, and you have to make the field labels
    wide enough to accommodate the widest field name. Some of the
    fields will undoubtedly be shorter. So in addition to making the
    alignment difficult, it's a waste of screen real estate. Save
    the pixels!
  • Non-dynamic: These displays don't usually
    adjust themselves for the information they are displaying. For
    example, if there is no middle initial, the value will simply be
    blank. But like looking through a database table, the blank fields
    are always there--you'll always have the field label there,
    and the space is still taken up. And if you try and make it
    dynamic, the screen is very noticeably changing all the time.

On the upside, these panels are pretty easy to build. You can
even generate them automatically from a data object using
reflection or a field mapping. This is a great example of where
interaction design goals differ from coding simplicity. Even
though they might be difficult from an interaction perspective,
they do have some redeeming features. But we're here to focus on
interaction and work towards the code, so let's see if we can do a
little better.

Figure 2 shows a more graphically oriented representation of the
same address.

"101" alt="Figure 2" />

Figure 2. Graphical address

The formatting in this panel is very close to how you would
write or print the same address. This allows you to remove the
labels, saving screen real estate, simplifying alignment, removing
clutter, and more. It's easy for users to tell the information from
the context. For example, addresses in the United States are always
street address, then city state zip
code on the following line. Quickly glancing for the comma and
looking after it is a quick way to find the zip code. So you don't
need a label marked "Zip Code" as in Figure 1. Other good examples
of things that don't need labels would be email addresses and websites. As soon as someone sees "http," they know it refers to a
website. The same applies to the "@" in an email address. In those
cases, the label is simply redundant and potentially

But sometimes you do need labels. As an example, the last line
shows two phone numbers. Cell phones and home phones have identical
formatting, so there's no way to tell the difference by context
alone. Yet this doesn't mean that you need to have full labels that
say "Home Phone" and "Cell Phone." Its already noticeable that they
are phone numbers due to the formatting, so you can eliminate the
"Phone" from the label. Also, there are a limited number of types
of common phone numbers--home, cell, office, etc.
Notice that the phone labels in Figure 2 only have a single
letter, "C" or "O," for home or office.

I can't stress enough how careful you have to be with this type
of logic, however. It's important to analyze the data you're
working with before doing a graphical display panel. You need to
ask yourself (and your users, if possible) whether they can figure
out the data from the context. For example, I built a trading system
and used these types of panels to display bond information. Bonds
are often identified by a combination of three data elements: the
issuer, the coupon rate, and the maturity date. Since these traders deal
with this information all day long, you can display the ticker, coupon, and
maturity in order--"F 2.7 2010," for example--and expect these
users to immediately understand it.


There are a couple of different ways to implement this. You
could use a series of JLabels and other text widgets,
or you could use a JTextPanes with styled text. We'll
implement a later example with a JTextPane and styled
text, so let's implement this example with a series of
JLabels for variety. Here is the code to set up the
JLabel-based GraphicalAddressPanel,
starting with the titled border and label instantiation.

public GraphicalAddressPanel() {
    setBorder(BorderFactory.createTitledBorder("Address Details"));
    nameLabel = new JLabel();
    addressOneLabel = new JLabel();
    addressTwoLabel = new JLabel();
    phoneLabel = new JLabel();

Next, we'll continue the constructor implementation with the
layout. Since the top label is going to be larger (because of the
font size) we can't use a simple GridLayout, which
would equally space all of the components. Instead, we'll use a few
panels and nested layouts. Start by setting the panel layout to
BorderLayout and adding the name label to

setLayout(new BorderLayout());
add(nameLabel, BorderLayout.NORTH);

Now, make a subpanel with a GridLayout, named
detailsPanel, for the remaining detail labels. Add the
remaining labels.

JPanel detailsPanel = new JPanel(new GridLayout(0,1));

Next, create a panel named bottomPanel with a
BorderLayout. Add detailsPanel to
BorderLayout.NORTH and add it to the main panel. This
is a quick and dirty method of using nested panels and layouts to
keep the labels oriented to the top.

JPanel bottomPanel = new JPanel(new BorderLayout());
bottomPanel.add(detailsPanel, BorderLayout.NORTH);

add(bottomPanel, BorderLayout.CENTER);

Finally, set the fonts of the labels. This uses the
deriveFont() helper method of Font. It
creates a new Font with the same style as the old
Font with a few changed parameters--very useful.

    nameLabel.getFont().deriveFont(Font.BOLD, 18));
    nameLabel.getFont().deriveFont(Font.PLAIN, 12));
    nameLabel.getFont().deriveFont(Font.PLAIN, 12));
    nameLabel.getFont().deriveFont(Font.PLAIN, 12));

Now to display the address. Create a method called
displayAddress(). This method is pretty lightweight.
We'll just use it to forward off the request for each line to a
helper method. This method takes in an address data object called
AddressDO. This is a simple data object with getters
and setters for each field.

public void displayAddress(AddressDO addressDO) { 

Let's take a look at the getPhone() method as an
example of the type of dynamic formatting you'll do with these
types of display panels. The logic is straightforward--if
the home phone number exists (i.e., it is non-empty and non-null),
add the "(H)" indicator and the home phone number. Do the same for
the cell phone number. If we didn't do this, we would display
labels for phone numbers that don't exist.

private String getPhone(AddressDO addressDO) {
    StringBuffer buffer = new StringBuffer();

    if (addressDO.getHomePhone() != null
            && addressDO.getHomePhone() != ""){
        buffer.append("  ");

    if (addressDO.getHomePhone() != null
        && addressDO.getHomePhone() != ""){

    return buffer.toString();

It's pretty easy to take it to the next level from here. If you
have your application deployed to multiple regions, you can
implement a display decorator to format names and addresses as
appropriate for current locale. You can also add and remove fields
at will. The end result is that it's easier to change the
formatting and display without a rigid label/value display like
Figure 1. At the same time, you conserve a lot of screen real
estate and can make the display more intuitive to your users at the
same time.

Example 2: Frame Title Abuse!

Frame titles are meant to label your application as a whole.
It's the single reference to your application as an entity. Its
also used by Windows, for example, in the task bar to identify your
application. In other words, it's a bad idea to cloud the frame title
bar with useless information.

That being said, it also happens to be a very visible place to
put essential information. But I've seen a number of
applications that commit something I'll call frame title abuse.
This is where an excessive amount of information is crammed into
the title bar to make the information visible. This can include server
connection information, build numbers, environment information, and
more. It gets pretty ugly. Figure 3 shows an unfortunate

Figure 3

Figure 3. Long frame title

There are a couple of fundamental problems here. First and
foremost is that the unnecessary information is confusing the
important information--the application name--in the
title bar. This is not to say that you shouldn't put other
information in the title bar. Web browsers, for example, usually
put the web address your browser is viewing in the title bar. This
makes a lot of sense. But environment and other system-specific
information does not belong there!

The other problem with adding information to the title bar is
that it's too easy to leave it in when your application is used by
real live users. It becomes second nature to testers and developers
to see this extra information--so you simply forget to take it
out until it's too late. I heard a story about internal names for
software: it was suggested that internal names for systems be
restricted to bodily fluids (i.e. "bile") so there would be no hope
of something so hideously named getting released.

In that spirit, Figure 4 shows an environment name watermark
transparently displayed across the application. Watermarks are used
in print all the time and work very well for electronic documents
and software as well.

Figure 4

Figure 4. Transparent watermark

The theory behind this is that it's immediately obvious that you
are in a test environment (because otherwise you wouldn't see the
watermark) and it's clear which environment you're in, for example,
if you have several. Also, notice that it doesn't interfere with any
functionality for your system--user-relevant information on
the title bar, for example, would function identically with or
without the watermark. Finally, it's jarring and obvious enough
that you would never release it for real! Precisely what we're
looking for.


We'll implement the watermark by creating a custom component
that paints the transparent text across a window. We'll make this
component generic enough so that it can be easily added to any
Window. Start by creating a class called
JWatermark that extends JComponent.

You'll need variables for the font and the watermark display
string for reference. You'll also need a couple of constants for
the rotation and opacity (how much you can see through the text,
which we'll get to in a bit).

private static final float OPACITY = 0.15f;
private static final double ROTATION = -(Math.PI / 4);

private Font font = UIManager.getFont("Label.font");    
private String text = "";

Here's the constructor that caches the display string.

    public JWatermark(String text) {
        this.text = text;                         

The heavy lifting for the JWatermark component is
in paintComponent(). There we'll call
drawString() with the opacity and rotation properly
set, as well as proportional size and location. The paint method
starts with creating the virtual drawing space--a rectangle
half the width and half the height of the window, centered.

Window window = SwingUtilities.getWindowAncestor(this);
Rectangle viewRect = window.getBounds();
int halfWidth = viewRect.width / 2;
int halfHeight = viewRect.height / 2;

Next, set the AlphaComposite on the
Graphics2D instance. The AlphaComposite
is used to set the opacity--in other words, to make the text
semi-transparent. Notice the opacity is set to 0.15, or 15 percent. You
can change this if you like, but I find that to be a good balance
between visibility and distraction when running applications with

Graphics2D graphics2D = (Graphics2D) g;
AlphaComposite ac = AlphaComposite.getInstance(AlphaComposite.SRC_OVER, OPACITY);

Next, set the font proportionally to the screen size. To do
this, find the smaller of the width and height and derive a new
font whose height is 1/7th the height or width of the screen--whichever is smaller. As with the opacity, you can change
the magic number of 1/7th, but I've found this works well on my
watermarked applications.

final int minSide = Math.min(viewRect.width, viewRect.height);
font = font.deriveFont((float)( minSide / 7));

This next bit is a little bit of magic code that calls
SwingUtilities.layoutComponentLabel to determine the
painting rectangle of the text. Note that the
Rectangle variable textRect is not
returned from the method. Rather, it is mutated inside the method
itself, since Java can only return a single object.

[prettify]Rectangle textRect = new Rectangle();

graphics2D.rotate(ROTATION, halfWidth, halfHeight);
      graphics2D.getFontMetrics(), text, null,
      SwingConstants.CENTER, SwingConstants.CENTER,
      SwingConstants.CENTER, SwingConstants.CENTER,
      viewRect, new Rectangle(), textRect,

Now you can paint the String. Again, there are some
magic numbers in here that work nicely in my applications, but feel
free to change them. They are used to roughly center the watermark
in the window.

int string_x = halfWidth - (int) (textRect.width / 2);
int y = halfHeight + textRect.height / 7;
graphics2D.drawString(text, string_x, y);

Finally, you need to install the watermark. Rather than make all
of your windows add the watermark separately, let's just make a
static helper method to add it. In order for it to keep from
interfering with window functionality, we'll put the watermark
layer one layer above the content layer. This means that the
watermark will show up in front of your components in the window
(so you can see it) but behind higher-level layers, so it does not
affect things like pop-up menus or drag-and-drop. Layers are added
by an index indicating priority, with constants for standard
layers. You can add a new layer by giving your layer a new index.
To make this layer just higher than the content frame layer, get
the constant for that layer and add one.

[prettify]public static Integer WATER_MARK_LAYER 
    = new Integer(JLayeredPane.FRAME_CONTENT_LAYER.intValue()
                  + 1);

With the correct layer in hand, here is the rest of the helper
method code to set the bounds, color, and opacity of the panel.
Notice that the watermark is added to the layered pane with the
WATERMARK_LAYER_INDEX just above the content

public static void createWatermark(JFrame frame, String text){
    JWatermark watermark = new JWatermark(text);
    Dimension screenSize = 
    watermark.setBounds(0, 0,
    watermark.setForeground( Color.BLUE );

    final JLayeredPane jLayeredPane = frame.getLayeredPane();
    jLayeredPane.add(watermark, WATER_MARK_LAYER, 0);

We'll wrap up this example with the code for the
WatermarkSimulator showing the usage of
JWatermark. Using the watermark is a one-line addition
to the creation of the frame: just call the static method

JFrame frame = new JFrame(...);
JWatermark.createWatermark(frame, "Development");

Here is the complete code for the

public class WatermarkSimulator {

    public static void main(String[] args) {
        JFrame frame = 
            new JFrame("Java Application Cache Viewer");
        JWatermark.createWatermark(frame, "Development");

        frame.getContentPane().setLayout(new BorderLayout());
        ImageIcon icon =
            new ImageIcon(
        JLabel label = new JLabel(icon);
        frame.getContentPane().add(label, BorderLayout.CENTER);

        frame.setSize(new Dimension(510, 450));


Example 3: Information Messages

The third and final example we'll look at deals with
informational messages. Figure 5 shows WinCVS with a
command-line-esque information log.

Figure 5

Figure 5. Command-line-esque display

This is a pretty familiar paradigm for programmers and old-school command line users. It tells you what it's doing and keeps a
log of your history. This is great for programming tools--very informational--but I wouldn't put something like this
in front of a non-technical user. To those users, it looks like a
lot of technobabble and is potentially confusing, due to the
additional information of the log as well as the display style
itself. I can only imagine what my father would think if Microsoft
Word had a command-line log of all of its actions at the bottom of
the screen!

That said, there are definitely some redeeming features. The
situation shown here is a failure to connect to a server. Many
applications would show an error dialog on a connection failure.
Alan Cooper, Jeff Johnson, and others point out the problems with
dialogs, ranging from irritation from interruptions to difficulties
with resolution instructions. Figure 6 shows an interesting middle
ground--a message bubble panel.

Figure 6

Figure 6. A message bubble

The idea behind the message bubble as a status indicator is
simple. First, it's easy to see what's going on. There is no
history to cloud the user's view like there is with the command-line display. Likewise, the status won't keep the user from
interacting with the rest of the system like a dialog box would.
That also means that you can put instructions in the status bubble
that you can't in a dialog. On this point, Jeff Johnson makes
reference to instructions on a helicopter door for ejecting. The
first instruction is to release the door, thereby removing the rest
of your instructions. Dialogs with instructions are the same thing.
As soon as you hit OK, the instructions are gone.

Writing Your own Message Bubble

The strategy here is that we'll make our own panel that has a
bubble in it. This will require a little custom painting to create
the rounded border effect and a little tweaking of the panel's
insets. Once that's done, you can set layouts and add components
just like any other panel. We'll implement this in a class called

Start off by declaring a couple of constants: colors for the
yellow bubble background and gray bubble border, margins for the
top and bottom, and the height and width dimensions for the arc
(rounded corner) in the rounded border.

private static final Color YELLOW_SNOW =
    new Color(255, 255, 204);
private static final Color BUBBLE_BORDER = Color.GRAY;

protected static final int X_MARGIN = 4; 
protected static final int Y_MARGIN = 2;

private final int ARC_WIDTH = 8;
private final int ARC_HEIGHT = 8;

Next, override all of the constructors and add call an
init() method. The init method adds the
empty border around the panel. This empty border makes sure there
is space around the bubble panel.

public JBubblePanel() {

... other constructors ...

protected void init() {
    this.setBorder(BorderFactory.createEmptyBorder(3, 3, 3, 3));

Since we added a border around the bubble panel, we need to
tweak the insets so that components added to the panel's edge are
still inside of the bubble inside of the panel. We'll make a helper
method to get the insets from the superclass. Then we'll override
the getInsets() method to adjust the insets within the
panel. Here is the code to tweak the insets.

protected Insets getRealInsets() {
    return super.getInsets();

public Insets getInsets() {
    Insets realInsets = getRealInsets();
    Insets fakeInsets =
        new Insets( + Y_MARGIN,
                   realInsets.left + X_MARGIN,
                   realInsets.bottom + Y_MARGIN,
                   realInsets.right + X_MARGIN);

    return fakeInsets;

And as usual, you'll need to override the
paintComponent() method. The important code here is in
the fillRoundRect() and drawRoundRect()
calls. The round rect methods are used to paint rectangles with rounded corners. The fillRoundRect() method draws the
yellow bubble itself, while the drawRoundRect() method
draws the border.

protected void paintComponent(Graphics g) {
    Graphics2D g2d = (Graphics2D) g;
    Insets insets = getRealInsets();
    Color savedColor = g2d.getColor();

    int rectX = insets.left;
    int rectY =;
    int rectWidth = getWidth() - insets.left - insets.right;
    int rectHeight = getHeight() - - insets.bottom;
    // Paint the yellow interior
    g2d.fillRoundRect(rectX, rectY,
        rectWidth, rectHeight,

    // Draw the gray border
    g2d.drawRoundRect(rectX, rectY, 
        rectWidth, rectHeight,



Usage of the JBubblePanel is very straightforward:
you just treat it like any other panel. Here is a code sample from
the BubblePanelSimulator, which adds a
JTextPane to the JBubblePanel. It's
exactly the same as any other panel. All of the code to add insets
and spacing is encapsulated in the JBubblePanel

JBubblePanel bubblePanel = new JBubblePanel();
JTextPane textPane = new JTextPane();
bubblePanel.setLayout(new BorderLayout());
bubblePanel.add(textPane, BorderLayout.CENTER);

Let's wrap things up with the complete code for the simulator.
This is also a good example of a JTextPane. Note the
use of the AttributeSet along with the string to
format text. Also, note that text is added to the
JTextPane by retrieving the Document and
adding the text to the Document, not to the
JTextPane itself.

public class BubblePanelSimulator {

    public static void main(String[] args) {

        JFrame frame = new JFrame();

        JBubblePanel bubblePanel = new JBubblePanel();
        JTextPane textPane = new JTextPane();
        bubblePanel.setLayout(new BorderLayout());
        bubblePanel.add(textPane, BorderLayout.CENTER);

        SimpleAttributeSet normal = new SimpleAttributeSet();
        SimpleAttributeSet bold = new SimpleAttributeSet();
        StyleConstants.setBold(bold, true);

        try {
                "Your connection to ",
                " ",
                "failed. Here are a few possible reasons.\n\n",
                " Your computer is may not be " +
                "connected to the network.\n" +
                "* The CVS server name may be " +
                entered incorrectly.\n\n",
                "If you still can not connect, " +
                "please contact support at ",
        } catch (BadLocationException ex){

        frame.getContentPane().setLayout(new BorderLayout());
        frame.getContentPane().add(bubblePanel, BorderLayout.CENTER);

        frame.setBounds(200,300, 400,360);


These examples give a good first look at some of the
difficulties with interaction design and implementation. The first
example with the addresses is a good example of the simple code
solution leading to the less-than-ideal interface (the label value
display panel), leading to the graphical display panel
implementation with more code, but a polished interaction. I can't
overemphasize how important decisions like this are for your
application. These decisions make all the difference between what
looks like a thrown-together interface and a polished one. Even if
the interaction is very similar, your users will consciously or
subconsciously notice the difference between the frame title abuse
and the watermark or status bubble from the third example. Small,
well-thought-out changes like these can make all the difference for
your application.

And as a final thought, these are just ideas. Take the spirit of
these thoughts and apply it to your applications. Maybe some will
work, maybe not. Possibly, a variation of one of these solutions
might be great for your specific product. Or maybe some of these
examples just give you inspiration for something entirely new.
However you do it, do whatever it takes to build excellent,
polished applications.


Shouts out to Brett Kotch for showing me his thought process on
some of these issues, and to Kevin Hein and Rob Linwood for
contributing some of the example code.


width="1" height="1" border="0" alt=" " />
Jonathan Simon is a developer and author specializing in user interaction.
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