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Mac OS X: Where’d Our UI Go?

Matt and I were IMing today regarding Apple's blatant disregard for its own UI lately. Matt's got a further post up here, called "Death of a Dogcow," in which he lists three primary flaws and many other smaller ones. Let's investigate a bit more.

First, Matt notes that Apple uses TIFFs and other images for buttons when the same exact widgets already exist: that is simply stupid and silly. A good example? The checkboxes in iCal. Checkboxes have existed in both the Carbon and Cocoa frameworks for quite some time - nearly every developer has used them - and they work fine. There's absolutely no reason to use your own images for checkboxes. In fact, it's downright silly to do so, because behaviors expected of normal checkboxes - such as respecting a user's graphite/aqua system-wide setting - require extra work or may go ignored.

The next question centers on Apple's use of keyboard shortcuts. For example, Apple's own apps can't stick to a common theme regarding the "Preferences&hellip" item: iTunes and iCal use command-Y, Safari uses command-comma, Mail uses command-option-semicolon, and the Finder and many other Apple apps have no shortcut at all. "Hide Others" used to vary (I don't have the patience to check right now). Many other Apple-supplied apps vary across applications in unwarranted fashions. Consistency is key, and we sure as heck don't have it in our menus.

Next, let's tackle the Metal UI: Apple's own HIGs say that it should be used for single-window applications: Safari is most certainly not a single-window UI, nor does Safari interface with a "real-world digital device" (Apple's own HIG wording may be different). iTunes doesn't really do this either - nor does Address Book or iCal - but at least they're mostly one window. I'm fine with metal - this isn't a "metal sucks" rant - but if you're going to go through the trouble of writing HIGs, and expect other developers to follow them, follow them yourself.

Next, we have the issue of these metal windows with sunken widgets bringing their applications forward, completely disobeying the laws of window ordering. I should be able to close a window in the background without bringing that app forward. Other windows work this way, and on a Mac OS that prides itself on its consistency, anomalies like this are nothing better than bugs that need fixed. I previously wrote about this.

Sticking to consistency, or the lack thereof, Safari uses a pair of non-standard toolbars: one of the bookmark bar items - the Bookmarks item itself - doesn't act like any of the other items (as menus or buttons), but instead acts as a toggle, yet it sits there beside the others. Items on one toolbar (the bookmarks bar) can be rearranged, while items in the location area cannot. Yet another kind of round search box - this time without a handy "X" for clearing the content - is present - and a progress bar (a non-standard one, and also one that disrespects a user's choice of the "graphite" theme) shows up behind a text box, thoroughly confusing many people. But I'll cut Safari a little slack: it is beta, after all.

However, I won't cut the font panel any slack. How many people knew there was a preview? Have a look at this:


The reason you didn't know there was a preview was&hellip drumroll please… Apple didn't provide a single damn clue to tell you! Who knew that dragging a plain old grey striped area downward (as seen above) would present a font preview area! Wow, the hidden secrets of the Mac UI - the bad Mac UI. They should have used a separator - that little "handle" with the three lines - used to separate split views. Apple's Ken Bereskin even prattles on about it as if nothing is wrong.

Let's look at iChat. The buttons at the bottom do nothing other than:

  • Open a drawer
  • Toggle a state
  • Display a drop-down menu
  • Display an Open sheet

It does these four things with five buttons. If that's not close to being 100% inconsistent, I don't know what is. The Bold and Italic buttons don't even remain "depressed" to indicate their "on" state.

What else have we got? iMovie is a prime example of several bugs, flaws, and examples of horrible UI. I wrote about it here, and will not rehash those points again.

Like Matt, I could sit here and think of several other examples of this crappy, crappy state of the UnIon, but I get depressed when I do that. I'd rather ask you to list some in the comments - and I'll contribute as I think of some - as Matt has done.


20 Responses to "Mac OS X: Where’d Our UI Go?"

  1. And don't forget to file these in Radar, so they have a chance of getting fixed.

  2. One thing that annoys me is in iDVD, iMovie and iPhoto when you click on the little red windowing close widget it actually quits the application. I have never seen other Apple applications do this.

  3. Calendar also quits when you hit the close button. Which is vaguely reasonable for a single-window application.

  4. iCal no longer quits when you close its window as of 1.0.2.

    Safari was released shortly after the HIG was "finished", and it was only then that Apple said command-, is the right key for preferences. Everyone else had exactly the same problem until then.

    I think Safari's bookmark view state switcher thing is fine, honestly. It's visually different enough from the other bookmark menus that you know by looking at it it will bring up all your bookmarks. I'm not sure how I feel about the way they implemented that action (with a view switch), but I don't see anything wrong with it.

    Also, check your font panel again. Under "Extras..." you'll see something that shows the font preview, as well as the font character panel.

    I agree that the HIG are too vague on the use of brushed metal apps, and that iCal has no real compelling reason to use its own widgets, but other than that, I think you're making a mountain out of a molehill.

    There are definately various apps of Apple's that "break" their guidelines, but none of them break them very much, and they certainly tend to be better than a lot of 3rd party apps in this regard. Not even Apple has the resources to follow all their guidelines all the time.

    File bug reports to Apple about the HIG breakage (particularly the stuff you mention about iChat's button states).

  5. Mountain out of a molehill? You had to apologize for all of the errors. iMovie's use of radio buttons is horrendous. So no, I'm not: I'm trying to prevent the molehill from becoming a mountain.

  6. File bug reports. Please. These kinds of things really do get fixed, and they're far more likely to get fixed if the team finds out about them.

    When you file the reports, write one per bug. So rather than saying, "Apps don't use the right shortcut key for Preferences", file one saying "iTunes' shortcut key for Preferences is counter to the HI guidelines," another for iCal, and so on.

  7. Oh, I've filed Radar reports. Plenty. I've also sent "feedback" via the form as well. I've heard that there's a big push towards "standards" and "conformity" in 10.3, so let's hope we see that. Y'know, as soon as we know _something_ about 10.3.

    Your advice Eric, however, still applies. People, file more. And list any other problems you see here after you file a report.

  8. I agree totally with these critiques of the UI. The HIG are a great set of guidelines for developing a consistent approach to computing. Ease of use and logical consistency is what makes this platform a great computing experience, and losing that through either laziness or bad management is not good enough.

    I just had a play around with the font panel preview (why is this not an app?) which I did not know existed previously, and when you turn the slider on, the point size in the numbered list gets bigger from top to bottom, yet the slider gets smaller from top to bottom. Sorry, but that's WinDoze behaviour.

  9. NSSchizophrenicControls

    Continuing my series of articles on Apple's dodgy UI decisions lately (also read

    Erik's latest, and

    Vinay's epic),

    I went into frenzied command-shift-4 mode (that's screenshot-taking mode, by the way),

    and recorded for posterity som...

  10. I agree that Safari should probably use the plain Aqua interface. It looks pretty in brushed metal, but it breaks the rules. Look at Sherlock, for crying out loud. After several years of confounding people with its metal interface, they went back to Aqua in Jaguar. Why? Because it didn't connect with or represent any real-world device. Sherlock and Safari should definitely share a similar UI.

    iTunes, Address Book and iCal, however, do connect with and represent external digital devices - the iPod, for one. And don't forget about Palms, cell phones, etc, which, through iSync, can share data with Address Book and iCal. So, it makes some degree of sense to use Brushed Metal for them.

  11. I agree that Apple as gone crazy with it's UI. Here's a couple of comment.

    "should be able to close a window in the background without bringing that app forward"

    This behavior for a multi-window app make sense, but with an app like AddressBook, I'm not sure if it should apply.

    "Apple's use of keyboard shortcuts"

    I use to brag to Windows user that a good Mac app use the same keyboard shortcut that every other app... 🙁 Too bad it's not true anymore.

    "The checkboxes in iCal"

    I agree with you that it make no sense to do widget in TIFF but at least I can understand the different checkbox in iCal since it helps that they are different colors. What I don't get is why some button are gray round corner rectangle like iTunes and others are the new pyramidal aqua button bar !

    "Safari uses a pair of non-standard toolbars"

    Have you look at Backup ? It use a regular toolbar behavior except you can't modify it.

    iTune still use the shadow on the window button, probably because it use to have the same look in OS 9, they are probably too lazy to change the window underneath all the interface...

    The close window button in Backup is visible but inactive !! You cant close the window but you can quit the app. Why is it different than the address book or the calculator ?

    There is too many weird thing in OS X interface but I still think that it's better than the alternative 😉

  12. apple's compliance with the hig released by apple

    both erik and matt both wrote articles about apple's ui principles and and what they are doing with them

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