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StencilMaps and EphemeralMaps: Spatially Stable Interfaces that Highlight Command Subsets

Identifying a target command can be difficult and time-consuming when the user is unfamiliar with a software system. One technique for assisting command identification is to provide a subset interface that contains only a limited set of the system’s capabilities. We examine the design of subset interfaces, showing that subsets can be presented separately to the full user interface (UI) (e.g. in a palette) or in place, with in-place methods using either static or dynamic methods to identify the subset. We introduce the StencilMap and EphemeralMap as
in-place subset UIs that, respectively, use static and dynamic highlighting. Both StencilMaps and EphemeralMaps make all of an application’s commands concurrently available for selection within a grid. To highlight subset items StencilMaps use a static dark semi-transparent ‘stencil’ overlay to de-emphasise all but the subset items; EphemeralMaps, in contrast, use a short delay, with subset items shown immediately, and other items gradually faded in. A first experiment compares user performance with the in-place
presentation of StencilMaps against that of the separate presentation of a subset palette. Results confirm the predicted spatial memory benefits for StencilMaps. A second experiment analyses the performance impact of three approaches to highlighting: none, static highlighting in StencilMaps, and dynamic highlighting in EphemeralMaps. Results show an interesting trade-off – while highlighting can offer benefits in assisting rapid target identification (particularly when the user is unfamiliar with the interface layout), there can also be longer-term performance benefits when highlighting is absent because the increased difficulty of visual search promotes the use and formation of spatial memory.


Scarr, J., Gutwin, C., Cockburn, A. and Bunt, A. (2015) StencilMaps and EphemeralMaps: Spatially Stable Interfaces that Highlight Command Subsets. Behaviour and Information Technology, 34(11), 1092-1106.


Andrea Bunt

Andrea Bunt

Associate Professor

As well as: Joey Scarr, Carl Gutwin, Andy Cockburn