Rich Newman

October 26, 2007

User Interface Design for Business Applications


This article is going to give a quick tour of the various high-level user interface designs for business applications that need to display multiple windows. It will discuss multiple document interface (MDI), single document interface (SDI) and other paradigms for handling multiple windows. The article will illustrate these concepts by looking at the user interfaces in Microsoft’s various desktop applications, both good and bad.

This article will be referred to by my series of articles on the CAB and SCSF but is not part of that series.

Business Applications

Before we start we need to consider what we mean by business applications. For the purposes of this discussion I mean applications that have some or all of the following characteristics:

  • display of data, often in grid form
  • some means of interrogating the data (querying, sorting, filtering, drilling down)
  • calculations based on the data, comparison of data (reconciliations), and display of results
  • some kind of data entry and persistence
  • data updates from other applications, maybe in real time
  • exports to Excel or paper or other formats
  • feeds to other systems

I work in banking, and would say that all the applications we build fall into this category, with the possible exception of internet-based applications for clients. Such applications may or may not be classic online transaction processing systems (OLTP).

In general these applications do not need to catch the user’s attention in competition with other applications, unlike internet-based consumer applications. As a result they largely will not use multimedia effects (video, animation, graphics). They are intended to be functional above all else.

Having said that such applications often do need to have a rich and responsive user experience. It is still hard to do that with HTML-based interfaces, even with the advent of Ajax. Often these applications are solely for internal use within an organization, where there will be a consistent desktop computer base with appropriate security. As a result deployment of smart client applications becomes possible and these applications are often built as smart clients.

High-level Design of User Interfaces for Business Applications

In this article I’m going to illustrate the various possible high-level designs for business applications using Microsoft’s own selection of applications. Whilst these are not really ‘business applications’ in the sense I have described above, they do illustrate the possible designs.

The difficulty that we are trying to address here is that our business applications will typically need to show many different screens with many different types of data in them. We may want to show more than one screen simultaneously, and may even allow data to be dragged between screens (although it’s arguable that this is one user interface paradigm that should not be used). There usually needs to be some central way of managing the various screens (a window manager), as well as some means of transitioning between them. Above all it’s critical that the user can easily navigate the system, and can use it in a flexible way that fits with their requirements.

Multiple Document Interface (MDI)

The ‘classic’ Multiple Document Interface (MDI) design has been with us for many years now, and at one stage was a very common way of handling the user interface problems described above.

A Multiple Document Interface application has a main ‘shell’ MDI window with just a menu bar and possibly a toolbar. The user can load individual screens from these bars, and the screens will just ‘float’ within the window.

Typically these applications have a ‘Window’ menu option, with ‘Tile’ and ‘Cascade’ options that rearrange all open windows. We also usually have a list of open windows on the ‘Window’ menu to allow us to find an individual screen.

There are several applications of this sort still around, even in the Microsoft stable:



One advantage of this sort of user interface design for enterprise applications is that it can be very easy to develop. Every screen is a form, there’s an easy way of creating one directly from a menu click, and window management is simple. If you cache your data on the client and use a simple model-view-controller pattern you can keep the data on the screens up-to-date relatively easily as well.

Of course the major disadvantage is that the user experience isn’t that good. It’s easy to ‘lose’ windows, and as you can see even in my simple screenshots above, windows overlap and what you want to see is often hidden.

It’s for the reasons outlined above that Microsoft has been phasing out this sort of interface from its own products.

Single Document Interface (SDI)

In a Single Document Interface (SDI) application there is only one window in each instance of the application. If you want a second window you start a second complete instance of the application. Switching between windows happens at the operating system level when you switch between applications. In Microsoft Windows this means you that you use the Taskbar to select a different window, as all windows will have an icon in the taskbar.

Microsoft uses this paradigm for Microsoft Word. If you open two documents in Word you get two separate instances of the application:


This is the default behaviour. It is possible to use Word as a proper ‘classic’ MDI application by changing one if its many options settings: if you click the Office button (top left), click Word Options, go to the Advanced tab and scroll down to the Display section there is a checkbox labelled ‘Show all windows in the Taskbar’. If you clear this Word will have an MDI interface:


Excel behaves strangely with regard to this. It has the same menu option, but its default behaviour with the ‘Show all windows in the Taskbar’ checkbox checked is different. Here if you open two Excel documents they are still MDI (i.e. they appear in the same window), although they do have two window icons in the Taskbar:

If you clear the checkbox all that happens is that you get one icon in the Taskbar instead of two (i.e. there’s almost no difference):


SDI does make some sense for Word and Excel where you will typically only have a few spreadsheets or word processing documents open at a time and may want a way to navigate quickly between them. The operating system Taskbar is ideal for this.

However, this sort of interface is usually not applicable to the complex business applications discussed earlier in the article. These applications will have multiple screens with different data being shown, and trying to manage all of those and their interaction through the Taskbar would be extremely difficult.

For this reason it is rare for business applications to be designed using SDI.

Basic Tabbed Document Interfaces (‘TDI’) – Browsers

Many modern desktop applications now use tabbed document interfaces of some kind. Rather than having multiple floating windows that are difficult to control (MDI), or each window in a separate instance of the application (SDI) we allow multiple windows but insist that they are arranged as tabs. This is dubbed ‘TDI’ for ‘Tabbed Document Interface’.

For example, almost all browsers now support different pages being shown on different tabs:


Even Internet Explorer now supports this in version 7, having held out as an SDI application in versions up to that point.

Disadvantages of Basic Tabbed Document Interfaces

There are two major disadvantages of pure tabbed interfaces for business applications:

  1. An obvious disadvantage of this design in its purest form is that it isn’t possible to display two windows alongside each other, and thus is difficult to arrange for drag and drop between them. Browsers typically get around this problem by allowing a new document to be shown in a new tab or a new window, thus creating a mixed TDI/SDI model. This is probably not an appropriate solution for business applications.
  2. Another disadvantage for the kind of business applications we are talking about here is that we may need to support a very large number of screens (windows) being open simultaneously. A simple tabbed arrangement can make it very difficult for a user to find the window they are after. On our current application we had to abandon all use of tabs for this reason (although we were also using a window manager, see below).

Montage Tabbed Interfaces – ‘IDE-style’ interfaces

Microsoft has recently moved some of its old ‘classic’ MDI applications into a tabbed format, but with surrounding property and window management panes:



Note that both of the screenshots above are of updated versions of the MDI applications we saw in the ‘classic’ MDI section above. They have the advantage over those older interfaces that we are less likely to ‘lose’ a window and usually won’t need to use a Window menu to navigate. The layout is tidier too.

Note also that SQL Server Management Studio solves problem 1 mentioned above in the section ‘Disadvantages of Basic Tabbed Document Interfaces’ by allowing the central tabbed area to be split horizontally or vertically into multiple ‘tab groups’:


Tree-Based Window Managers

These applications also show for the first time the now common approach for doing window management in modern user interfaces. We have a tree view in a pane to either the right or left of our main document window. This tree organizes our documents in a logical hierarchy, meaning we can find the document we are after fairly easily. Clicking or double-clicking in the tree will open the document or bring it to the front if it is already open. This is a big step forward from a Window menu that just listed open documents in a random order. However, the old MDI version of SQL Server Enterprise Manager also had a tree-based window manager, so it’s not a new idea.

These window managers mitigate problem 2 mentioned above in the section ‘Disadvantages of Basic Tabbed Document Interfaces’: we still have the problem that we may have a very large number of tabs open, but at least we have a tree that will let us go to the one we need.

Integrated Development Environment Interfaces

Of course both of the ‘Montage Tabbed Document Interface’ applications shown above resemble the older integrated development environment interfaces all developers are now familiar with from such applications as Visual Studio and Eclipse:


As we all know, this user interface is highly customizable. We can display tabbed documents alongside each other (as shown above) and drag between them. We can ‘tear off’ any of the surrounding panes and have them float free of the main window. We can easily then dock them to any part of the interface.

Again we have a tree-based window manager in the Solution Explorer pane that allows us to go directly to a tab if we have too many open to easily find the one we need (and we all know that can be a problem).

Disadvantages of the Integrated Development Environment User Interface

This kind of interface is great for an integrated development environment; it’s hard to find a developer who doesn’t like Eclipse or Visual Studio (at least now it doesn’t fall over every few minutes). However a user interface this complex may not be appropriate for a business application. The tear-off property windows in Visual Studio in particular are a nice idea, but lead to the old problem of you not necessarily being able to find your window, particularly if you have multiple screens. I doubt many developers actually use this feature: I certainly don’t.

Users of business applications usually don’t need to be able to highly customize the user interface. Indeed allowing them to do so can cause problems if a complex application is used in ways the developers are not expecting. In general it can be better to retain a little more control. It’s certainly harder to program (and hence more expensive to maintain) an application that allows multiple panes to be ‘torn off’ from the main application and kept synchronized with the application.

Montage Interfaces without Tabs – Outlook-style Interfaces

For some of the reasons cited above Outlook-style interfaces are currently very popular for business applications:


Even if you use this product every day it’s worth thinking about what’s good and bad about the interface.

We have a tree-based window manager, which in the corporate environment is often used to manage quite extensive trees of documents. Emails can be displayed in the main window, as shown, or can be in their own window with a separate icon in the Taskbar, which is useful to be able to find them when you are writing a new one whilst still checking new mail.

There are no tabs here either, other than the collapsible sections themselves, which clearly aren’t quite the same thing as allowing multiple documents to be opened in a tabbed view.

The pane to the left hand side has collapsible sections of course, allowing us to select completely different areas of functionality of the application. This is an attractive way of doing things if we are writing complex business applications. Of course it’s particularly attractive if we are writing a composite (CAB) application as each module can be on a different collapsible section.


What’s interesting about the screenshot above is that we don’t need a tree window manager for our notes, so Microsoft have used the space to put in a simple set of radio buttons to allow us to change the view. This really isn’t a great use of space, and this is one drawback of this design: for simple areas of functionality you may not need a window manager. You can find yourself trying to invent something useful to put in the Outlook pane when you don’t really need it.

However overall this isn’t a bad starting place for a design for a business application. It’s simple but quite powerful. Many of the tools vendors have realized this and ship components that support such an interface. In fact most of the major vendors seem to have fully mocked up versions of Outlook running using their tools as demonstrations.


This article has looked at some possible high level interface designs for business applications that need to display multiple windows of data, and considered some of the pros and cons of each. For a composite application an Outlook-style interface can be a good starting point.


Wikipedia on:
Multiple Document Interfaces
Single Document Interfaces
Tabbed Document Interfaces

Microsoft Design Specifications and Guidelines – Window Management

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  1. Thank you for your sharing UI Knowledge.
    This topic you shared is make me more clear about User Interface,such as how many kinds of UI style and what UI style is suitable for bussiness
    And then i really eager to get more detail information about Outlook-style Interfaces. IF you don’t mind please send me information.
    Thank you

    Comment by Mr.Myat Thu — December 28, 2007 @ 7:03 am

  2. I’m trying to develop an outlook style user interface in VS 2008 (VB).
    You call it a Montage Interfaces without Tabs – Outlook-style Interface.

    How would I go about doing this? What controls should I be using?
    Somone told me to use the splitter, but I heard its old and being phased out by the split container.

    I need 3 columns in my application, and I would like the ability to hide the 3rd column as show with the To-Do Bar.

    Should I create the columns by placing a split container “within” another splitcontainers right panel?

    I really can’t figure it out.

    Thanks in advance for any assistance.

    Comment by Simon — May 2, 2008 @ 10:03 am

  3. I don’t know how anyone can hold up Outlook as an example of good design. It must be the most annoying piece of software I have ever had the misfortune to use.

    Some other points were good though :-)

    I have had customers request the Outlook look and feel and have produced apps for them before using Visual Studio. Most got fed up of being constrained by a poor metaphor though before too long and we moved them onto something more advanced.

    - Mike.

    Comment by Mike Mesh — October 22, 2008 @ 8:36 am

  4. Very well done.

    Comment by anon — July 22, 2009 @ 7:15 pm

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